Undersong

The undersong is the movement and the meeting place between ourselves and God.  To listen to the undersong is a spiritual thing: to open ourselves to conversion and change.  For many of us, the undersong is the music/lyrics of the albums we love.

A monthly column is published here.  You can also follow on Twitter.

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no.20 june 2012

2112 (1976) by Rush

I don’t care if you avidly scour all the most in-touch music forums, follow your favourite band on Twitter, attend every single secret gig in order to catch even the slightest hint of new material, the fact remains that pretty much all the music you experience (including – in fact, especially – live music) is from the past.  It’s been rehearsed and rehashed and re-imagined countless times, with any recordings subjected to any number of producers’ whims before it’s remixed, re-mastered and finally released.  Crikey, you could break into the shop and steal it from the shelves the day before it goes on sale (don’t say I gave you this idea) and what you’re hearing would still be old enough to listen to its own music loud enough to get an Asbo.

And if everything’s from the past (there’s a branch of philosophy debating just this kind of useful stuff, I’m sure) then a sure-fire way to make it endures even less well is to set it in the future.  Remember Michael York’s haircut (and just about everything else) in Logan’s Run?  Or how every single American-produced science fiction film from the 1940s and 50s is just a thinly-veiled allegory for the incipient threat of Communism rising up to take over the world and rob us all of our individuality?  No?  Just me?  Well, setting stuff in the future invariably makes it look stupid a few years later on, and should largely be regarded as folly.  Trust me on this.

Enter Rush, in whose 20-minute ‘2112’ – set a hundred years from right now, people, and you can’t get any more futuristic than that – your typical Stage 3 dystopian future is ruled with an iron fist by your typically unyielding and absurdly-named authority (We’ve taken care of everything/The words you read/The songs you sing/The pictures that bring pleasure to your eye).  An optimistic and presumably dangerously naïve young man finds a guitar (It’s got wires that vibrate and give music/What can this things be that I’ve found?) and takes it before the authorities as a symbol of wonderful hope and freedom.  Suffice to say, the authorities are not best pleased.

Now, I know you’re busy, so a 20-minute song is going to fall a long way down your list of priorities, but you really should check this one out.  This is the start of an absurdly long run of astonishingly good Rush albums (I’m only up to 1982’s Signals at the time of writing) and the freshness with which they attack this kind of concept/space opera is massively humbling.  Here Rush don’t suffer from Dream Theater’s deliberate obscurity or King Crimson’s whimsy, they simply lay down short, sharp, distinct sections shot through with a distinct cohesion; they get in, jam, Geddy Lee screeches like a banshee trapped in a washing machine on a runaway ghost train (it’s really not as disharmonious or contrived as that sentence sounds) and then they get out, job done.  Worth forfeiting an evening of people pretending to be miserable on EastEnders for, most certainly.

If the title track has any failings, they come in the form of its overshadowing the remainder of the material (which although billed as the “Grand Finale” in the notes isn’t set in the same…context).  However, the rest of the album can be viewed as a show reel for what was to come: ‘A Passage to Bangkok’ swiftly abandons its Oriental-themed opening conceit and instead rocks and grinds its way to a sumptuous guitar solo 2 minutes in that’s basically Rush in a nutshell; ‘Twilight Zone’ highlights their ability to turn a song on it nose from one thing into another utterly without it seeming even slightly odd; and ‘Lessons’ is spry, light and easily the best place to begin if the 20-minute space opera described above seems too big an ask at the first attempt.

‘Tears’ is the equivalent of the emotive ballad that all boybands release about three singles into their career to prove their obvious versatility – which is not to say it’s a bad song, more just an expansion in a direction they’ve not quite mastered at this stage – and ‘Something for Nothing’ is then a perfectly pleasant way to round things off, if a little generic in a way that they never seem to repeat and so presumably recognised; this is the band who two years later would write a song that used trees in a forest as an analogy for racism, after all, so it’s quite okay at this point to quibble over such things and use it as a form of praise.

Later albums would sort out such imbalances in content – 1977’s A Farewell to Kings is already much more even – but 2112 is the place where Rush became Rush as people talk about them (and if you don’t know anyone who talks about them you need new friends.  Or I do, I suppose).  And Rush as people talk about them are definitely a band worth acquainting yourself with.  Which I know I’ve been saying about lots of different bands lately, but that is sort of the point of all these columns, after all: to inspire you in new musical directions, to seek out new bands and new musical styles, to boldly go where…well, you get the idea.

Jim

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no.19 may 2012

On Reunions

I won’t deny the well-earned success of the recent television series, nor the appeal of the not-so-recent movie sequel, because the latest incarnations of Sherlock Holmes have fared better than most.  But, let’s be honest, revivals are rarely if ever a good idea.  Arthur Conan Doyle never wrote with the same enthusiasm for his most famous creation following his enforced resurrection, and most of the times that a band has gone over a waterfall grappling with their own psychotic genius Mathematician (or, y’know, creative malnutrition, industry indifference, financial irregularities, substance dependency…) they too are better left drowned.  Particularly when some of them have reached heights in their original incarnations that would be near-impossible to match a second time around.

I could of course be about to stick the boot into any number of recent and/or threatened reformings – The Darkness, Suede (though they’re not fit for the name without Bernard Butler), Steps, NKOTBSB for pity’s sake – but where’s the sport in that?  Dwindling interest and sales have ruined many group and subsequent solo careers, and you have to feel a little sorry for most of them.  Being little more than unskilled labourers, these people soon find themselves cast adrift in a callow and hateful world that takes enough pleasure in tearing down those who maintain a modicum of success (witness the covers of weekly “gossip” atrocities for evidence of that) without my feeling the need to shoot any fish in the barrel of those who’ve failed to ascend to whatever level of achievement I have decided worthy of them.

So The Verve’s pre-second break-up album was boring; so no-one even remembered All Saints to realise they had split up in the first place; so the spectacle of Blur prostrating themselves at Glastonbury was enough to pass as a harbinger of the Apocalypse… so what?  It’s clear that the opportunity of a guaranteed quick payday from crowds of affluent, nostalgic 30-somethings will be seized upon because, frankly, these performers have nothing else.  True, it’s not always about the money (Pink Floyd at Live 8 spring to mind) but it is about the attention; having lived in the limelight and then withered and nearly died once it was turned off, who wouldn’t want 3,000 – hell, even 50 – people chanting lyrics along with them, the sense of complicity, of accomplishment, rekindled for even one evening?

And yet each new reformation (small “r”) still galls, because it hints at more to come.  And it’s the hubris of it all that gets me.  You know how every year at Wimbledon the BBC dusts off Pat Cash so he can go on about winning it in 1987 and you want to scream “It’s the only thing of note you ever achieved!”?  It’s like that.  Seeing musicians scrabbling desperately for past glories is undignified, more than anything else.  They posture and pose as if the failure of their career first time around was all part of the plan, as if they’re doing you a favour, as if having the same group of people performing the same songs again makes everything the same.  No, not the same.  Better.  Because, since this is what was missing from their lives, it’s obviously what was missing from yours.

It misses the point.  If you cannot appreciate why your past is important, you have no right to resurrect it.  Music is bigger than those who create it; it is both larger and more fragile than any ego, and when it matters to people – when it burns inside them like a fever, when it chases away their fears and inhibitions, when it binds together the aching pieces of their weary and fractured hearts – your responsibilities are a damn sight larger than just squeezing into an old pair of jeans to peel through the hits one more time.  The entire fad will be exemplified this summer when 225,000 people watch the Stone Roses take up the reins of ‘I Wanna Be Adored’; I, for one, would rather they just didn’t bother.

Anyway.  Next month, something fun.

Jim

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no.18 april 2012

Adam and Eve (1997) Catherine Wheel

If history is any guide then bands should, by all accounts, be wary of the rabid loyalty of their own fans, as at times such things seem to exist in an inverse proportion to their longevity.  This has probably never been more true than in the case of Catherine Wheel, who released some astounding music during their lifetime but failed to stick around beyond five albums and one B-side collection despite still being one of music’s lamented lost.

Of course other factors may have played a part, like their lack of a consistent sound (not, I guess, that it ever hurt Madonna).  Their 1992 debut Ferment managed to out-Shoegaze My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless; 1993’s more sonically diverse Chrome would probably nonetheless fly into a generic Rock pigeon-holing; and Happy Days from 1995 had the always-unpopular temerity to consciously court a more popular and supposedly “harder” sound, so by the time Adam and Eve came about the band’s fanbase could have reasonably been a little uncertain as to what to expect.

And as aware as I am that the M-word is a little overused these days, Adam and Eve is still their masterpiece.  It is rich and vibrant and lush and emotional and genuine in a way that too little music ever gets to be; just look at the way ‘Here Come the Fat Controller’ builds and builds and builds to a threatening euphoric crescendo for over a minute-and-a-half before Rob Dickinson steps effortlessly out of the tempest with Don’t you think that it’s about now/That you cooled your operations/And be generous somehow? – no, it doesn’t make sense grammatically, but it’s still completely wonderful.

Of course, at that point he is just fine-tuning the same trick from ‘Future Boy’, whose drifting textures are speared on strident guitar chords and mixed with what I can only really describe as melodic white noise.  But the sense of passing through the calm at the centre of a storm when everything abruptly halts for the vocals becomes no less potent with repeated listens.  And, immediately following that, ‘Delicious’ sounds like the first time they’ve really enjoyed themselves in years; rather than straining every sinew trying to impress, they just relax into what they do and produce easily the most quixotic  tune of their career, the unabashed romanticism of which later resurfaces on ‘For Dreaming’ and ‘Goodbye’.

Still not convinced?  Then how about ‘Phantom of the American Mother’ and its tearing strips off tightly-introverted self-examination (So here it is, you needed proof/There’s no rock and roll parade for you/It’s time to face the truth).  Or the never-overstated – but certainly not understated – longing of ‘Ma Solituda’ with the gradual corruption of its gorgeously deceptive central melody.  Or the jumpy, rakish widescreen charm of ‘Satellite’ whose circling overdubs and soaring chorus signify a band completely at ease with itself and the music it makes, musicians content simply to be at the top of their game and delighted that you’ve come along for the ride.

Because, unfortunately, from such heights the only way is downhill.  By the time final album Wishville came out, three years later, the band had turned on itself Van Gogh-like,  severing the useful appendage that was bassist Dave Hawes and replacing him with a “The” at the beginning of their name.  The fact that this seemed like a fair trade should probably have been harbinger enough to forestall them from further recording; not that Wishville is a bad album by any means, but if I were allowed to choose the manner of my departure then it would most certainly be this one rather than that, so to speak.

Jim

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no. 17 march 2012

Who’s Next (1971) by The Who

Possibly more famous these days as the soundtrack to whichever American city Jerry Bruckheimer decides to park his CSI catering truck in, let’s not forget that The Who were a great band in their day.  From the Moddish pop of their early stages to the astonishingly early artistry of Tommy and the self-referential deconstruction of The Who Sell Out they took on almost anything and usually made a pretty good fist of it.

But for me they’ll always be a rock and roll outfit who were only encouraged to veer away from their true calling because Pete Townshend was such a prodigiously talented songwriter (and, let’s be honest – as much as Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and even Keith Moon all contributed songs at some stage, it’s Townshend who made The Who what they were).  Daltrey has the kind of voice that aches to growl out lyrics with his own peculiar sharpness over guitars turned all the way up to eleven and a half, and even the seemingly limitless excesses of rock and roll were only just enough for Moon and Entwistle to properly cut loose and shine at their brightest.

So in one way this album is a disappointment, as only half the tracks (I typically ignore any “new” material on expanded releases) fulfil that type of promise, and only really ‘Baba O’Reilly’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ ratchet up to the top end of the scale.  That first track, in particular, is such a Who touchstone that it’s very difficult to listen to with new ears even if you’re not sure you’ve ever heard it in the first place; but the jagged, looping opening notes combining with those piano chords and Daltrey’s bark of Out here in the fields/I fight for my meals has to be one of the most purely exhilarating moments ever conceived in music.

And yet it can’t be a disappointment, not really, when the less Rock-y songs are as strong as they are here.  ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ is, of course, another touchstone, and a surprisingly tender one at that (be honest, the harshness when Daltrey sings And I blame you came as something of a shock, didn’t it?); Entwistle’s ‘My Wife’ is, yes, chauvinistic and dated, but it’s also hilarious and clearly has its tongue so firmly wedged in its cheek that it’s a wonder anyone can concentrate on playing their instruments; and although ‘Getting in Tune’ almost turns the whole album inside out with its utterly brilliant opening lines (I’m singing this note ‘cos it fits in well with the chords I’m playing/I can’t pretend there’s any meaning here and in the things I’m saying) it mercifully gets only stronger from there.

Certainly it’s not a record not without shortcomings – the intermittent stirrings to life of ‘The Song is Over’ serve as a reminder of how good it could have been had they just cut loose completely – but it would be churlish to hold that sort of thing against such artistic endeavours as this.  As albums go, it’s definitely strong enough to make you question whether you should listen to anything else by them and risk it not being as compelling, your opinion of them diluted as a result.  But, you know what?  With music as omnipresent as it is these days, finding something that can make you care that acutely has to be a great thing, and probably makes the risk about worth it on balance.  Just my opinion, though, you understand.

Jim

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no. 16 february 2012

A Fistful of Dollars (1964) by Ennio Moricone

James Bond, of course; and Star Wars.  Indiana Jones, too, but certainly very few other movie themes have endured as well as those written for Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Western” trilogy featuring Clint Eastwood as the thrice-named Man With No Name.  And whereas Bond is best-known for his girls and gadgets, Indy for his stunts, and Star Wars for George Lucas’ incessant meddling, Ennio Morricone’s music is the first connection that many will make with the films.  And that’s because it is spectacular.

The spirit of financial deficiency in which the movies were made meant that there weren’t really any costs to be able to cut in the first place, but all three of Morricone’s scores are shot through with the purposefulness of a man who always intended to make the music under such restrictions anyway.  This first one, being first, is probably the most tentative, stripped – occasional flourishes in the title suite aside – of the gorgeously explosive bombast that would typify his later (more famous) work on The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and thus comprised of simple hard, clean music delineated into unambiguous instrumental parts that weave and march around each other with an orchestration that plays delightfully to the strengths on show.  Whatever he was paying, it’s fair to say Leone got his money’s worth.

Film music on CD is a tricky proposition as, without the moving pictures and (in this case) terrible dubbing to distract you, the music still has to stand up.  It must warrant a listen – repeated listens, even – on your stereo having never intruded upon the movie it was intended for in the first place.  Love Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood though I do, his twitching, clipped Bodysong soundtrack is a prime example of how music intended for films can suffer when taken away from them.  And at the other end of this scale, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s work on the boundlessly unmemorable Nicolas Cage “thriller” Snake Eyes doesn’t sit at all well in that film because it seems frankly to be slumming it, being far too graceful, far too beautiful at times,  for such a juddering Frankenstein’s monster of a movie.

Morricone, then, has walked a fine line perfectly.  This is as sparse as the movie it was written for yet enriches it immeasurably and, while it conjures up the feel and spirit of what transpires therein, you don’t need to have sat through it to appreciate what he achieves here (though, if you are listening to it in this vacuum, a fetish for dynamic Mediterranean-themed Folk instrumentation would come in handy).  Enough motifs crop up throughout – the quickly-descending woodwind line, the potentially-wordless barked guttural vocals, the whistling, snaps and cracks that render this so identifiable – to make it clear that this is a body of work rather than a set of disparate tracks as on most albums, and this in turn makes it feel far more substantial than its 29 minute running-time should allow.

Most telling, though, is its freshness.  It’s a testament to Morricone’s abilities that, having been ripped off more times than James T. Kirk’s shirt, his early work has endured so well and still sounds so relevant where his imitators have largely sunk from view.  The three soundtracks as a whole represent a staggering creative energy at work, and each of them is a fine listen, but if you’re completely new then this is definitely the best place to start.

Jim

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no.15 january 2012

Violence & Birdsong (2006) by Union of Knives

We should, by now, be accustomed to disappointment.  The economy’s in an awful state, with the only ones who aren’t suffering being the morons who put us in this position in the first place, and wider events like the Leveson Inquiry into the unconscionable practises of tabloid journalists are made only more appalling by the admission that those things are, at least partly, driven by demand (if no-one demonstrated any interest in such trash then it’s unlikely anyone would print it, after all).  Not the happiest of sentiments to start the new year – Happy New Year, by the way – but let’s call things as they are.

And popular culture is hardly an embarrassment of riches for us to escape into.  The X Factor will have just subjected the less discerning among you to the spectacle of 17 year olds covering ‘My Way’ as if the defining period of their lives was anything more than a glorified, machine-tooled popularity contest far too labyrinthine and hysterically unpleasant for them to even begin to comprehend.  And as much as the experience may seem validated by your having voted for the eventual winner, the upshot of it all is that you now have a large phone bill from repeatedly calling premium-rate lines and they will have fallen off the conveyer by this time next year.  Nearly everybody loses, again, and those who don’t are the smug bastards.  Again.  Brilliant.

So it’s only fair to assume from the outset that the gloriously grinding, scattered electronic bass notes opening ‘Opposite Direction’ on Union of Knives’ debut (and only, a second lingers recorded and unreleased) album will eventually lead to further disappointment.  But first they have to get your hopes up, so that track and ‘Operated On’ are grimy, edgy and faintly sinister in a manner not unlike Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James Album crossed with the febrile jaggedness typifying Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief.  Genuinely, they belong in that company.  ‘Evil Has Never’ joins the (very) short list of songs that have virtually moved me to tears on first listen, but don’t let that distract you; that’s three good – no, great – songs in a row, which means at least five fillers before a late resurgence.  We’ve seen this countless times before, don’t go all hopeful on me now, do you think it’s the mid-90s or something?  Get a grip.

‘I Decline’, then, opens with a lyric that’s far too weak to follow on from such a strong start, but this is where the rot should start to set in so it’s fine.  The hypnotically tribal drumming and music that shifts like clouds being burned away by the rising sun can be put down to, er, chance.  Instrumental ‘Even Machines Make Mistakes’ then slows things down for the spacier textures of ‘Taste for Harmony’ and ‘Lick Black Gold’, which you can guarantee aren’t as good as the first three tracks, that’s for sure.  Except that – ahem – they just might be, and the way ‘Go Back to School’ repeatedly veers between quietude and sudden exultant bursts of life is actually rather, well, thrilling.  But that’s track 8, things aren’t supposed to still be this good at this point; they’ve clearly crammed all the decent stuff into the front of the album.  Wow, what a rookie mistake.  The final three tracks must really suck.

However, the simple melody at the heart of second instrumental ‘The Law is Against My Heart’ gracefully reintroduces the earlier raggedness and ‘We Can’t Go On’ is probably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard, making places inside of me ache in a way that feels like falling in love.  After that ‘You Better Keep Me’ might as well be the acceptance stage of the grief cycle, because this is going to end soon and you have to make peace with it, but it manages to be both layered and elegant, summarising everything that’s come before and closing it all out serenely.

What’s going on, why am I smiling?  Hang on, this is actually…really good.  In fact, caution be damned, it’s brilliant: it’s the most excited I’ve been about discovering a band since Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights.  What else have they done, how soon can I buy it?  Oh, there’s just that other unreleased album to date.  What else are they working on?  They disbanded in 2009, you say.

Typical.

Jim

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no.14 december 2011

The Inevitable End of Year List: 2011

It’s the end of the year as we know it, a perfect opportunity to clear the decks – so here in no particular order are 10 notable songs that I discovered in 2011.  You all listen to mp3 playlists these days anyway, don’t you?  No-one buys albums any more.  Makes me feel old.

Song Title – Artist (Album, Year)

The Night Will Always Win – Elbow (Build a Rocket Boys, 2011): Amidst all the disappointing bombast of their first “post-breakout” album, the finest moment is this beautifully understated lament; it’s what Elbow have always done best, staging rich musical bedding for Guy Garvey’s aching lyrics.  Yet the remainder of the album is such a heinously over-syrupy concoction that without the context of their previous work you’d be inclined to believe this was the anomaly; something very rotten in the state of Bury for that to be the case.

The Owl – I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness (Fear is on Our Side, 2006): Instrumentals can be misleading, it’s true, look at all the unfulfilled promise in the first track of The XX’s album, but this is probably ILYBICD at their most pure.  So sumptuous in form and sinister in execution that I still can’t work out whether to fall in love with it or run screaming from the room whenever I hear it.

Peggy Sang the Blues – Frank Turner (England Keep My Bones, 2011): It’s difficult to be earnestly upbeat in song without straying over into cheesiness – you think you’re John Barry, everyone else thinks you’re John Barrowman – but I’m of the opinion there’s nothing Frank Turner can’t achieve, with this ghostly visitation from his deceased grandmother less a portrait of loss than it is a perspective on how to live.  Is he now the best songwriter in the country?  Probably, and it’s only a matter of time before we find out whether mainstream success spoils him.

Howl – Florence + the Machine (Lungs, 2009): Yes, she’s got a new album out now so I’m already boring you, but I came to Flo and the Mo really quite remarkably late.  This starts as yet another exhibition of Florence Welch’s astounding ability to invest any emotion you’d care to name into any note that exists, and ends up a headlong barefoot pursuit through the forest with dusk fast approaching.  It’s been nearly a year now, and this still sets my heart racing.

Ghost Hands – The Music (N/A, 2011): A free download that’s not necessarily a great song but is notable for being the last thing The Music ever released, as they split up earlier this year.  Mixes the repetitive tendencies and meaningless yet upbeat lyrics of their early stuff with the hard-edged production that helped make their final album so enjoyable; Robert Harvey – who sounds like Rush’s Geddy Lee trying to terrify his demons into submission rather than going the traditional route and just having them exorcised – is probably my favourite frontman of the century.

Shit Creek – The Icicle Works (Blind, 1988): The Icicle Works are a hazy mix of Shoegaze, New Wave and a pint of cider with friends on an unexpectedly sunny Autumn weekend.  However, this thunders with an aggression that would make any Led Zep best of.  The musical equivalent of finding out that the old man who runs your Post Office not only single-handedly defended a foxhole against 400 enemy troops for 17 hours during World War 2 but also then went on to refuse the medal he was offered.

Liiines – Ghostpoet (Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam, 2011): Once in a generation an album comes along that defines its times so acutely its status as a future classic is guaranteed.  This is not that album, by some considerable distance, but this richly-frayed downbeat expression of artistic frustration is so impressively strong that, when he gets bored of trying to bend himself into whatever shape cool happens to be this month, signs indicate Ghostpoet could have a very long career indeed ahead of him. 

Still – Bombay Bicycle Club (A Different Kind of Fix, 2011): a.k.a. the Melancholy Falsetto Album-Closer, except that the marked maturity of this from their generically cheeky debut album is really something special.  Harder to pull off this kind of thing than most people will admit – it’s all that Aqualung fella ever does and look how consistently short of the mark he is – but this is genuinely delicate, sincere and gimmick-free.  Expect millions of Beady Eye fans to hate it with a fiery reactionary compulsion.

Lonesome No More! – The Longcut (A Call and Response, 2006): Like Interpol expanding into Trance music, this is all sustained repetition capped off with roughly a year’s worth of unresolved tension.  About two-and-a-half minutes in, as you expect thunderous drums to tip everything over into euphoric celebration, the entire enterprise perches on the strained vocals before receding in as measured a fashion as it arrived.  It’s not the kind of music you write home about, it’s the kind of music that’s already back at home waiting for you. 

Numb – The Airborne Toxic Event (All At Once, 2011): Yes, one could easily accuse them of taking themselves a mite too seriously, but they know a thing or two about channelling catharsis through music.  And when they can make the loneliness and aching desperation for release from the pain marking the end of a relationship sound this good, then more power to them.  And their drummer has a lustrous and entirely-not-ironic moustache, which is always a cause for celebration in my house.

A very happy festive season to you and yours – grease on Earth, pigswill to all men, etc; see you next year.

Jim

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no.13 november 2011

Now here is Nowhere (2004) by Secret Machines

With nights drawing in and temperatures dropping your thoughts will doubtless be turning to ways to fend off another British Winter.  Dark and increasingly cold mornings, dank afternoons, filial discord brewing over whether or not the heating should go on…it’s not even close enough to Christmas to distract yourselves with that yet so how are you going to cope?

What you need is some good old-fashioned comfort food, the sort of recipes that get hidden away during the warmer months: shepherd’s pie, toad in the hole, maybe a beef chilli (substitute in the vegetarian alternatives if that’s how you choose to live your life).  Yes, these aren’t exactly words that fill you with a leaping hope and restless love for humanity, but it’s about coping during the long, cold nights ahead.  Experiment a little, throw in some basil or tarragon – go on, the economy’s in tatters, it’ll soon feel  like we’re trapped in Eastern Europe following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, so you need little affordable joys like this to mix things up a bit.  You never know, you might stumble across some tweak to an old favourite recipe that makes you learn to love it all over again.

As luck would have it, the above paragraph largely mirrors the experience of listening to the Secret Machines’ debut album, comprised as it is of solid and strangely familiar songs peppered with endearing little touches, like the spiralling feedback enshrouding the last lap of ‘The Road Leads Where It’s Led’ or the unmistakable sound of a high-performance engine during ‘Sad and Lonely’.  The familiarity can be a little unnerving – ‘Nowhere Again’ comes across like a chord-for-chord retread of the Flaming Lips/Chemical Brothers collaboration ‘The Golden Path’ at times – but it would be churlish to allow this to detract from that fact that this three-piece have constructed a highly agreeable series of experiments in texture and sound.

It bears all the hallmarks of a debut in that some of the ideas elude the reach of those involved, but more often than not is able to pick itself up again with impressive aplomb.  So the intended frozen minimalism of ‘The Leaves Are Gone’ never really materialises convincingly, but the switch-up in tempo between that and ‘Nowhere Again’ helps you appreciate what the latter track has to offer.  The itchy zealotry of ‘The Road Leads Where It’s Lead’ then makes ‘Pharaoh’s Daughter’ seem a placid downer by comparison, after which the way ‘You Are Chains’ casts off its building, tightly-wound introversion midway through feels like a kind of glorious release.  You wouldn’t say it’s definitely done on purpose, but the riding of these peaks and troughs lends the whole affair a big-picture approach which helps counter the flaws that will inevitably creep into any artistic undertaking.

Having the smarts to dream up such things would count for nothing if they didn’t have the talent to see it through, however.  And while Josh Garza may not emerge as the most distinguished drummer of his generation, the walls of sound built around him may not allow it: the stabbing guitar chords that initiate 9-minute opener ‘First Wave Intact’ and the shimmering dissonance that forms most of the remainder of that track are undoubtedly anchored on his vaguely pedestrian thundering, so maybe he’s just doing what’s required and letting the others show off around him (Charlie Watts would no doubt approve).  There almost seems to be too much else going on for brothers Brandon and Ben Curtis to be solely responsible, but they combine to fantastic effect, with alternately jagged and verdant instrumentation dancing effortlessly around vocals that edge a near-religious fervour at times.

If you find the food metaphor hard to stomach (Ithankyou), then think of this as double glazing: yes, you’ve seen it elsewhere and know what to expect, but Winter’s coming and you’ll be considerably happier with it than without.  Damning them with faint praise?  Nah, just trying to get you in the right frame of mind (okay, I’m out)…

Jim

no.12 october 2011

The Shape of Punk to Come (1998) by Refused

This just might be…my favourite album of all time, as much for what it contains as what it represents.

However, there’s an elephant in the room: Refused’s third and final album fuelled such anti-Capitalist feeling in the group during its creation (vocalist Dennis Lyxzen’s opening line – I’ve got a bone to pick with Capitalism/And a few to break – that’s a clue right there) that they disbanded, unable to reconcile their political views with making a career out of a system they had come to despise, yet it has gone on to sell incredibly well and doubtless make them quite a lot of money.  Only Hipsters really worry about such things, though, and only then because they have no good music of their own to listen to.

So, to bring you up to date: Punk came and went as described last month and was then co-opted into a frank bastardisation which has degenerated these days to the extent that wearing a sweatband  while playing your guitar allows you to preface whatever brand of dirge you’re peddling with “Punk” (I’m looking at you, Green Day).  But the truth is that talking about music in terms of strict types no longer applies – the boundaries blur too much, and trying to classify a particular sub-sub-genre can be a complicated and self-defeating thing.  How, then, can we have a new form of Punk that doesn’t immediately nullify itself by trying to reheat the glories of the past?

The answer is found on this album: a coruscating, fearless manifesto (their word) that couldn’t be less interested in classification, preferring to tear apart your eardrums one moment, mix in psychedelic Scandinavian radio the next and add graceful Hilary Hahn-esque violin lines to finish.  If that sounds like hard work, well, that’s sort of the point.  It’s an album you have to be prepared to wrestle with (for the first ten or so listens I honesty couldn’t get all the way through, nor could I work out why I kept trying), to weather almost, to allow its message to percolate and your musical radar adjust.  Second track ‘Liberation Frequency’ is probably the most explicit example of the changes in volume, speed and mood hurled at you but they are found throughout, most devastatingly in the furious musical/political statement of ‘New Noise’ that sits at the heart of the whole undertaking (How can we expect anyone to listen if we’re using the same old voice?/We need new noise/New art for the real people).

It is beyond merely loud.  There is an aggression here that holds you personally responsible for all the stultifying musical and political crimes that have been committed in your lifetime, but unconventional aims require unconventional means: they are trying to overthrow the whole of music, after all.  The emotional clarity of songs like ‘Summerholidays vs. Punkroutine’ (Rather be forgotten/Than remembered for giving in) and seemingly-tender album closer ‘The Apollo Programme Was a Hoax’ (Sabotage will set us free/Throw a rock in the machine) show an intelligence behind the raging that justifies the return visits.  And the quiet moments here – most easily appreciated in ‘Bruitist Pome #5’ or the sawtooth valleys of ‘Tannhäuser/Derivè’ – are just as valid as the loud ones in underlining what Refused’s brand of Punk is all about.

Nothing is out of bounds, nothing too quiet or too raucous, no change of tempo too great, no two musical styles too disparate to be jammed together.  And the confidence with which it is carried off – the gleeful, rip-snorting, relentless cacophony of idea after unapologetic idea – is, if anything, almost more Punk than Punk ever was before.   But be under no illusions: Punk is dead, Refused resurrected it and laid it to rest here, and anyone who claims otherwise is deluded or lying.  This is not a brand of music that anyone else possesses the necessary war and thunder to attempt, and only really Radiohead have a tolerant enough fan-base to support something so removed from the norm.  Be prepared to hate it like you’ve never hated any album before in your life, but you should at least have the mettle to give it a go in the first place.

Jim

no.11 september 2011

A brief history of British Punk

Let’s imagine for a moment that modern music started with the Beatles.  The Beatles were popular, people liked them and sought to emulate their success, mainly by forming bands that sounded a lot like the Beatles.  Mercifully this didn’t last too long; creativity won out and new things were tried and modern rock music was born.  Rock was popular because so much of it was new, so there was more of it to go around – diversity could be easily achieved by adding more instruments or simply making the songs longer – and so everyone was happy.

Well, okay, not everyone.  Some people disliked Rock’s increasing tendency towards self-indulgence; its lyrics became gradually more obscure, its instrumental solos longer and more meandering, the entire enterprise almost completely inward-looking, culminating in the inauguration of Progressive Rock, or Prog, in the early-70s (a genre characterised by providing the opportunity for fans to go to the toilet during an instrumental interlude and be back before the next chord progression).  So these people nurtured a musical idea wherein everything that Rock seemed to encapsulate – from those epic solos right down to even being able to play the instrument in the first place – was thrown out.

What if you didn’t need an acre of amplifiers to perform music?  You could be a man on a stage with a microphone and something to say (crucially you had to have something to say, to counter Rock’s empty excesses) and that would be enough; anyone could do it, it would liberate music.  Thus, Punk was born.  Yes, a lot of it – most of it – was dirge, but Punk was a revolution that put music in the hands of people who had previously been restricted to just buying records.  Suddenly, being a rock star didn’t seem so important; who wanted to listen to songs about dancing in the fields of Avalon when they had plenty of their own political or social frustrations to give voice to (plenty of those in Britain in the 1970s)?  Suddenly, people wanted to be Punks.

Before the Socialists among you get carried away as usual and take to the streets, let’s not ignore the fact that commercially it was a dream for record companies, too.  Without costly and time-consuming post-production music could be recorded and released in a matter of weeks, responding to what was happening in the world and finding its own audience with staggering ease.  It was music with a message and integrity that flew off the shelves and into the hands of a disaffected public – yes, centred on the rejection of all previous musical dogma, but don’t believe for a second that it would have seen the light of day if money couldn’t have been made out of it.

Of course, it couldn’t last.  For a discipline founded on the basis of overthrowing the spirit of musical expression imitation would be stagnation, and yet as soon as one band tapped into a successful vein others, scenting an easy buck, would rush in to reproduce it.  Bands started looking inwardly to consciously craft something “Punk” that would sell, at which point the revolution was just treading in the footsteps of the regime it had sought to overthrow.  And it wasn’t just the bands, Punk was torn apart from the outside, too: a culture of insistence at having to dress or dance or play in a particular way in order to be considered Punk sprung up from the fans, many of whom were desperate to cling to their little corner of rebellion in the face of its increasing popularity.  And as soon as the rejection of conformity became marked by its own conformity, well, the entire enterprise was doomed.  Within 2 years everything had burned, and only the memories remained.

It wasn’t the end of all music, of course, music carried on and elements of Punk were adopted into Thrash and Metal, with the New Wave and Post-Punk era of the early 80s among the most fertile in musical history.  But it was definitely the end of Punk.  Even after the Americans got in on the act a few years later with slightly different motivations, the fundamental concept had been ripped from the British blueprint, and talk of a Punk revival in the 80s and early 90s is exactly that: talk.  Punk wasn’t revived then, it was rehashed, the spirit of a noble idea rekindled for little more than self-conscious profiteering.

And then something wonderful happened…

Jim

no 10. august 2011

Disintegration (1989) by The Cure

Of all the subcultures with musical ties that have come and gone over the years, surely the hardest to pin down has to be the Goths.  Mods were the well-dressed corruptors of society, Punks at least believed that they stood for something (for a little while, anyway), anyone adhering to Straight Edge can lay claim to a manifesto of sorts and Emos usually have too restricted a blood flow to cause anyone a second thought, but Goths mainly have big hair, black clothes and manage to look embarrassed at all their talk of “belonging to something” when interviewed on the news at Whitby Goth Weekend.

Robert Smith, who – as the only constant member and key divining influence – basically is The Cure, wears black clothes and has big hair, but is not a Goth.  Plenty of talk about belonging, or having been displaced from a position of belonging, forms the cornerstone of Disintegration, but it’s not a Goth album and The Cure are not a Goth band (do you see how confusing this can be?).  From that first breaking wave of opulent production in ‘Plainsong’ it’s clear that the intention here is grander that such tiny labels, namely to work on a musical canvas so vast that you’d struggle to house it in the Louvre.

It’s impossible to escape the fact that this is not a happy album.  The only explicitly upbeat track – ‘Love Song’ – is also the shortest, and not carried off in a wholly convincing manner.  Very few bands would be allowed to get away with something so superficial and lyrically moribund (Whenever I’m alone with you, you make me feel like I am young again/ Whenever I’m alone with you, you make me feel like I am fun again) and Smith & Co. only carry it off because of the goodwill generated elsewhere (part of me suspects it may even be intended sarcastically).  By contrast, on the subject of a thousand tiny little doubts squeezing their way under the skin to pick and pull apart a healthy mindset things become more developed and show a much fuller utilisation of the talent at hand – the album is called Disintegration for a reason, after all.

Not that they’re going to go about it all in a mopey, Goth-ic fashion, of course.  ‘Fascination Street’ throbs and shimmers with Johnny Marr-like energy, and for all its negative overtures ‘Closedown’ has the compact and muscular tightness of far less arduous material.  Then there are twin epics ‘Pictures of You’ and ‘Disintegration’, which approach the same emotional state from opposite ends of the musical spectrum – the first as a spry pop song run through with a frozen and swooning fatality (There was nothing in the world that I ever wanted more/Than to feel you deep in my heart) and the second as a thunderous, suffocating battle cry against the self (So it’s all come back round to breaking apart again/Breaking apart like I’m made up of glass again).  Both are utterly superb, and wring a surprising amount from what should by rights be a rather dry well.

It is perhaps inevitable, then, that things come unstuck eventually: listening to it in preparation for this column ‘Homesick’ seems like a needless slog to me now, and while no-one would doubt the credentials of ‘The Same Deep Water As You’ as a mood piece it doesn’t really do anything musically (for nine and a half minutes!) and then just shrugs and gives up.  And final track ‘Untitled’ appears to’ve wandered into a dark room by accident and is searching for the light switch by repetitively bumping its head against the walls.  At times like these the focus almost seems too narrow for the vaulting ambition behind everything, and such inconsistent standards mean it can be hard to fully invest in what the band have tried to achieve because the limitations pull you up short, offer you a reprieve on the edge of the precipice.

So a long way from perfect and not the masterpiece many claim, but it remains compelling on account of the hints of magnificence that show between its flaws.  Anyone new to The Cure should probably start with Three Imaginary Boys or Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, but there’s plenty here to reward the persistently curious; even a cracked diamond throws out beautiful patterns when you shine a light through it, after all.

Jim

no 9. july 2011

Love, Ire & Song (2008) by Frank Turner

Listening to music is by definition an almost entirely passive activity and you can reasonably expect it to be a while before all the nuances of a song are revealed, even when they’re rather obvious (see: all those romantic playlists containing ‘Every Breath You Take’).  So when something comes along with a narrative structure that requires you pay attention then it, bluntly, had better be worth paying attention to.

We’re back in the realm of Folk this month, albeit Folk as filtered through the worldview of Frank Turner, the public school-educated ex-vocalist of disbanded hardcore group Million Dead – an enticing proposition in itself – who not only writes songs worth paying attention to but invests them with a belief that makes them soar.  Such is his conviction and the clarity of his vision that at times you almost wish there was something here you could embroider on your sleeve and adopt as a manifesto, but Turner is more intent on chronicling everyday frustrations and desires.  And he happens to do so brilliantly.

The first third of the album is the hook:  fast-moving and full of fabulous lyrics (The last girl that I loved, she was a low and lusty liar/She set my heart on fire but made me choke/Her beauty was a sight to see, but she didn’t save it all for me/I found other fires by following the smoke) that make you wonder why this man isn’t better known; if Pete Doherty in his media-darling phase had remained coherent for long enough to write ‘Photosynthesis’ the NME would have exhibited its typical restraint in heralding him as the new Bob Dylan and bedroom-dwelling pretentious chin-strokers would have bought it in their droves.

The rest may initially seem a little flat by comparison, but this belies a lingering maturity that ensures the legs to carry it past the first couple of listens.  Any fears of mawkishness prompted by ‘Better Half’ are swiftly dispelled by the title song’s sudden switch in moods in its second line and the sweet melancholia of cross-channel love story ‘To Take You Home’.  Final track ‘Jet Lag’ is an end-of-the-relationship lament played out through airport departure lounges with genuine regret dashed through nevertheless with palpable relief (I remember times we had/Drinking while we wait for your plane/Feeling kinda bad/Wondering which one of us has changed) that should leave you a little crushed and a little full of joy.  And all I’d like to say about ‘A Love Worth Keeping’ is that it’s currently my favourite song of all time (if the final triumphant “Darling, I’m coming home soon” doesn’t break apart your heart and rebuild it stronger and larger and more full of love than before, then…well, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am).

The album title, in that case, may not be wholly accurate: there is doubtlessly a lot of love, a lot of ire and a lot of song here, but it fails to mention the exhilaration of finding someone in possession of Turner’s insight coupled with the talent that enables them to put it across with such shameless verve.  If you have to strain that hard to find something wrong with an album, though, then it’s clearly not worth complaining about; better to dive in and celebrate the joy of it all.  Happy listening!

Jim

no.8 june 2011

The Dutch Radio Recordings Vol. 1 (1981) by The Sound

Live music and recorded music make uneasy bedfellows.  Like Ant and Dec you can’t really have one without the other and (unlike Ant and Dec) each has its individual merits, but the fact remains that live music captured on CD singularly fails to replicate the excitement of toughing it out with several hundred other souls.  So when I call this the greatest live album ever recorded I do so with a real sense of regret that I wasn’t able to attend the gig in person.

Unlike most live albums it’s not some stadium show filled with legions of the faithful who will happily lap up even the most insipid run-through of the hits, but instead a small gig recorded by a band virtually no-one present had heard of and who suffered the ignominy of never achieving the status they deserved before disappearing without a trace.  If my obvious need to impress you with my obscure music credentials here doesn’t sent you running for the hills then good, as this album is an experience you’re unlikely regret (obviously I make no legally binding promises).

Let’s not be too meta about this, but an element of what makes it so good is that you probably haven’t heard of The Sound, so you’re effectively part of the audience, waiting along with them to see what’s going to unfold.  They share a lot of attributes with the Interpol influences mentioned the other month, just angrier and rougher around the edges, which is by no means a bad thing – frontman Adrian Borland may not have pitch-perfect delivery, but the energy he invests is magnificent to behold and musically the group is flawless.  Guitars buzz and thunder with a sharpness that may be surprising to those of you who still imagine that everything recorded in the 80s sounds like Spandau Ballet, and the compact focussed songs stream past with highlight after highlight.

Of course, Punk had recently redefined what was possible in music, and this type of spiky, reactionary, apolitical posturing was fairly common at the time, but The Sound sell it better than most: when on ‘Missiles’ Borland insists Who the hell makes those missiles/When they know what they can do? you can’t help but feel that he has a point.  They’ve recorded better versions of ‘I Can’t Escape Myself’ (notably on the second volume of this collection) but it remains a very emotional experience nonetheless, and ‘Heartland’ explodes out the blocks and is never given a chance to look back.  The final five songs, however, earn this for me its high repute – 23 minutes of unfettered musical brilliance that always leaves me grinning like a loon; I’d call it virtuoso but you’d think I was exaggerating.

But, then, don’t just take my word for it.  Compare the polite smattering of applause that greets opener ‘Winning’ with the clapping, hollering, stamping and whistling that follows first encore ‘Resistance’ (during which time I like to imagine the band were backstage trying to decide what to do, as by that point they’d run out of songs) before they come out and blister through ‘Hey Day’ for a second time.  This is what music, especially live music, is supposed to do: unite us, elevate us, be thrilling and nerve-wracking and give us memories that endure like little else.  It is here, on albums like this, that recorded and live music make sense together, and we should consider ourselves very lucky for the opportunity to revisit and explore something that makes it so easy to celebrate the best the form has to offer.

Jim

no.7 may 2011

The King of Limbs (2011) by Radiohead


Let’s be clear about this from the off: Radiohead’s transformation from a straight ahead guitar band into a more experimental outfit is a Very Good Thing.  Complaining when a group of musicians this talented refuse to rest on their laurels makes about as much sense as leaving the light in your lounge on at night because your sofa might be afraid of the dark.  So a new album over three years since their last LP was similarly released as a download, and with plenty of encouraging stuff available from their website inbetween times, is most certainly a reason for excitement.

Frustratingly, The King of Limbs delivers only in part.  It’s too interesting to be merely a bad album, but the directionless and anaemic nature of some of the songs makes it feel more like a compilation of offcuts from Warp records – a label as synonymous with electronica as are Mills & Boon with ladies of a certain disposition getting all hot and flustered – than something Radiohead have crafted with their usual care.  Anyone who claims that it’s in basically the same vein as previous album In Rainbows, or anything Radiohead have released this century, is cloth-eared and should never be trusted ever again, because the dexterity that we’ve come to associate with their music is in parsimonious evidence here.

To wit: Opener ‘Bloom’ may be deliberately intended to throw you off your stride, but it’s been done with none of the delicate expertise of earlier attempts at the same like ‘Knives Out’.  ‘Codex’ seems to’ve been universally accepted as a masterstroke of understated brilliance, but it’s not; I know, I know – grrr, who’s cloth-eared now, moron? – but it sounds like a b-side that wasn’t good enough for an EP released in the wake of OK Computer 14 years ago, and it’s certainly not fit to tie the shoelaces of ‘Videotape’ or ‘I Will’.  I also feel the need to criticise ‘Feral’ but every time I try to listen to it I simply forget it’s there, so can’t say much besides that it’s 3 minutes and 16 seconds long and presumably the sound of Agatha Christie’s “lost” 11 days following the revelation of her first husband’s affair.

But you’d never write Radiohead off, nor accuse them of being short of ideas, and in places it’s a simply superb album.  If everything had the complexity and tenderness of ‘Lotus Flower’ it’d be among the best things they’ve released, and Thom Yorke’s strained growl of You’ve got some nerve/Coming here opening the account on ‘Morning Mr Magpie’ feels like someone finally finding a way to scratch an itch in your soul.  And while I have no idea what ‘Separator’ is about (you could tie yourself in knots trying to discern the meaning of most Radiohead songs; my advice is not to bother), it cants smoothly on probably the most sumptuous instrumentation they’ve ever conceived from gorgeously calm (Like I’m falling out of bed/From a long and weary dream/Finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve been carrying) to the kind of sweet feverishness that only Yorke seems to be able to get away with these days (If you think this is over/Then you’re wrong).  The album’s only 8 tracks long, dammit, why can’t it be this good throughout?

In all honesty I feel a bit like the cynics who didn’t approve of Radiohead’s first foray into electronic textures with 2000’s Kid A, as if there’s something astounding here eluding my narrow-mindedness.  But then I listen to this album again and find that’s not the case; bits of it sound so promising, but as a whole it doesn’t measure up.   I guess that just because you progress doesn’t mean you improve, and that’s not something we’ve had to confront with Radiohead before and so it comes as a bit of a shock.  Let’s just hold out hope for something more consistent and enjoyable next time.

Jim

no.6 april 2011

The Very Best of Dean Martin: The Capitol and Reprise Years (1998) by Dean Martin

Dean Martin comes from a stable of yesteryear performers whose names pass as synonyms for gold standard quality and an effortless sense of aspirational cool – Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dusty Springfield, Andy Williams, Julie London…the list goes on.  Everyone has some of this music somewhere, it appears to be universally adored, and so I understand that I’m not going to make many friends by saying that I actually find it pretty samey and dull.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore London’s take on ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, it knocks Sinatra’s far more aggressive and less nuanced version out of the park, but I’ve never felt the need to buy any collection of her songs because experience shows that it will just be the same thing 25 times.  About 5 tracks into any of these best ofs I usually have to check that the CD isn’t scratched and skipping back to the start every time, and by track 11 my mind has wandered to the smell of intransigence or the sounds different colours would make if you hit them with a stick.  Repetitive?  It’s like techno with a blue rinse.

What immediately marked Dean Martin out for me was that he was the only one who sounded like he was having any fun.  Musically, there’s a twinkle in his eye, a roguish sense of enjoyment that conjures up images of him dancing around the studio during the interludes in each song.  His hilariously prodigious output – he recorded over 700 songs in his lifetime – is here distilled down to pretty much everything you’ll know of his solo stuff, which admittedly may not be all that much as he’s been so unjustly outdone by his contemporaries in recent times.  These days Martin’s music occupies a level of recognition equivalent to walking past Ron Perlman in the street – you’ll probably know a lot of the songs here from somewhere even if you’re not sure where.  Who’s Ron Perlman?, you ask?  This guy:

Oh, yeah, him.  From Beauty and the Beast.  And, uh, wasn’t he in The Shawshank Redemption?  That’s exactly what listening to this album is like.  The standards here rub shoulders with lesser-known greats like the graceful paean to alcoholism that is ‘Little Ole Wine Drinker, Me’ and the playfully suggestive ‘The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane’ (whose punchline will make your CD – sorry, showing my age there, mp3 – player wink at you once the technology exists).  Most importantly, there’s variation here that I’ve never really found with singers of the same ilk.  If you want something to relax to there’s ‘Gentle on My Mind’, ‘Houston’ and ‘Rio Bravo’; for a romantic playlist you can go to ‘Memories Are Made of This’, ‘I Will’ and ‘Volare’; ‘Ain’t That a Kick in the Head’ and ‘Powder Your Face with Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)’ are just enjoyably nonsensical upbeat songs, while those of you not yet ready for the maudlin stylings of Nick Drake can ease yourselves in gently with ‘Return to Me (Ritorna-Me)’ and ‘Let Me Go Lover’.

There was a second volume released two years after this but, in all honesty, it’s inessential unless you can’t get through the day without Dean Martin crooning a lot of very similar songs at you (hey, I never said he was perfect).   It’s the nature of the music produced around this time that such echoes inevitably set in, but Martin’s infectious relish and talent for applying himself to the characters he portrays precludes such problems for at least this part of the collection.  It will never win you round if Linkin Park represent the cutting edge of your musical horizons, but as an example of what could be so great about music from this era it frankly takes some quite considerable beating.

Jim

no.5 march 2011

Interpol (2010) by Interpol

Few bands in recent years have been so belaboured by comparison to their antecedents as Interpol – quite a compliment when you consider the company they’re keeping, but at times it does serve to undermine their own excellent output.  An abridged charge sheet might run like this: they have the same lush instrumentation as 80s wonders Kitchens of Distinction and The Chameleons, yet Daniel Kessler’s guitars maintain the angular edge of post-punk standards Gang of Four and Wire; across four albums they’ve exhibited  the sort of tight production and interplay that made Television’s 1977 debut such a revelation, and vocalist Paul Banks’ bassy delivery pitches them somewhere between Bauhaus and Echo and the Bunnymen, albeit with the arch stylings of The Psychedelic Furs.

So far so shoulders of giants, no harm done.  However, near-constant unfavourable comparisons to Joy Division – whose typically spartan and rebelliously dense arrangements are quite some distance from anything Interpol have ever attempted – find the naysayers on rather shakier ground.  Sure, both groups deliver their worldview slightly further down the aural register than most and both produce songs that can take a while to ingratiate themselves to the corners and ceases of your brain, but in reality the similarities end there.  It is, however, the very nature of this second point that leads to such comparisons being so fecklessly repeated in the first place.

With the exception of their muted blitzkrieg of a debut, all Interpol’s albums require a good five or six listens before you can even begin to think about forming an opinion on them, especially true on this, their fourth.  At their most Interpolian here – ‘Success’, ‘Barricade’, ‘The Undoing’, ‘Always Malaise (The Man I Am)’ and the unmitigated dynamic brilliance of ‘Lights’ – they maintain an insidious charm that nonetheless takes some looking to find.  And so in these impatient days, when musical appreciation requires a faster return on investment, Interpol’s lack of gimmickry plays against them; there’s no chorus you can imagine a stadium crowd chanting, nothing Channel 4 are going to use in the soundtrack for one of their achingly hip urban dramas, and this lack of explicit posturing flies in the face of what we’ve come to expect from our recording artists.  As a result the musical brain panics and begins hurriedly convincing itself of tenuous similarities based on whatever straws it can grasp, then clings to these in desperation.

It’s okay.  Take a breath.  Calm down.  Music this gracefully constructed is intended to reveal itself to you in stages.  The plaintive refrain of “That’s why I hold you/That’s why I hold you, dear” supporting the second half of ‘Lights’; the increasing complexity of ‘Try It On’ layered over a repeated piano line before being dramatically stripped back to a closing confetti of electronic beats; the drums-bass-guitar structure opening ‘Barricade’ building to a crescendo that tips the jagged vocals into the mix…this is quality worth taking the time to appreciate, and I’d give you more pointers but the joy really is in discovering it for yourself.  Yes, it takes time, but the sooner you start the sooner you’ll find so much to love in what they’ve done here.  So get listening.

Jim

no.4 february 2011

Strangeways, here we come (1987) by The Smiths

It is a truth universally acknowledged that anyone dismissing The Smiths on the basis of them being miserable has missed the point, so let’s move straight on.  This, their final album, was written and recorded during the demise of the professional and personal relationship between songwriting pair Johnny Marr and Morrissey, and as such becomes that most awkward of records, worse even than the Difficult Second Album: a definite ending.

When the final album comes about as the result of (dis)agreement – rather than, say, necessity following the death of a band member – there’s the need for that last spin to do almost too much at once: appease the fans by giving them more of the same but just different enough to prove you still have it, convincingly stretch the artistic wings one last time, and (ultimately) produce something that makes people wish you weren’t stopping in the first place.  So the notoriously guitar-centric Morrissey and Marr mix things up a bit here, opening with keyboards; in fact, there’s not a guitar to be found on opener ‘A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours’.  It’s a beautifully confident beginning, setting up a nimble first half that includes career highlights ‘I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish’, ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’ and the quite brilliant ‘Death of a Disco Dancer’ – as accurate a representation of the disenchantment with and rejection of the hippy movement of the 1960s and 70s as has ever been recorded:

The death of a disco dancer, well it happens a lot round here,
And if you think peace is a common goal
That goes to show how little you know…

The second half becomes rather more sombre: ‘Last Night I Dreamt that Somebody Loved Me’ and ‘Death at One’s Elbow’ may be titles that play into that perception of miserablism, but the songs respectively have a singular grace and a vibrancy that they’re never really credited with.  ‘Paint a Vulgar Picture’ – written partly in response to their record company releasing the virtually identical collections Louder than Bombs and The World Won’t Listen on the different sides of the Atlantic – has taken on an oft-commented irony in the wake of the repackaging and re-releasing of the band’s catalogue in multitudinous forms since their split, but for me it’s equally notable for effortlessly fitting in the line Please the press in Belgium (try it for yourself if you don’t see why that’s an achievement worth noting).  And they end as they began, with nary a guitar in sight for ‘I Won’t Share You’, bowing out in quite beautiful style, maybe making you wish for one more album, just one  more chance to see where they would have gone next…

In a time when the gold standard achievement is to be thought of as “rock” music – a label so staggeringly vast that it incorporates Snow Patrol’s balladry at one end and the more commercial branches of Scandinavian hardcore punk at the other – it’s really rather refreshing to reflect how in their time Morrissey and Marr elevated the pop song to a new level of artistry.  Of course, people will try and classify The Smiths as rock these days now that “pop” has become a dirty word, bringing to mind performers seemingly designed by a committee miming their way through songs they didn’t have the talent to write with all the spontaneity of the state opening of Parliament, but don’t be fooled.  We will not see the like of The Smiths again for a very long time, and they should be celebrated for what they achieved in the short time they were together.  So if you’ve ever had your doubts, dive in, give them a chance, you might just be surprised.  And that would be a quite wonderful thing, wouldn’t it?

Jim

no.3 january 2011

Checkmate Savage (2009) by The Phantom Band


In the vastly knotty family tree of musical styles, folk music is the second cousin of questionable legitimacy: regarded with suspicion, largely ignored and rarely tolerated in public.   Its typically lo-fi strumming of loosely-tuned guitars coupled with unassuming vocals may be an admirable and just incarnation of artistic integrity but is, let’s face it, practically no-one’s idea of a good time.

Any successful attempts to popularise the form have been the result of combining folk with other styles of music, which, given its lack of formal structure or strict characteristics, can be done with surprising coherence.  Scottish sextet The Phantom Band – who, in singer Rick Anthony, can lay claim to the most prominent regional accent to make the big time since Maxïmo Park’s Paul Smith – continue this trend here on their debut by taking a fundamentally folkish base and overlaying it with a borderline-illegal quantity of musical invention.

To call parts of this album merely vital would be to undersell it heinously – the opening grind of ‘The Howling’ might well be the lifeblood pulsing through your very veins, and the lightening and darkening moods of ‘Left Hand Wave’ should leave you giddy.  While elsewhere the churning bass lines and lyrics like We writhe, we rave/We rip, we rend set the scene for doom-tinged folk rock, it would be a shame to overlook the clockwork accuracy of instrumental ‘Crocodile’ or the fractured staccato beats that permeate ‘Burial Sounds’ as indicators of the depth you’ll find by just scratching the surface.   True, it’s not the sunniest set of songs you’ll ever hear, they provoke too visceral a reaction to skip lightly over the surface of your brain in that way, but then who ever said it was possible to enjoy only lightweight music?  Anyone who can’t get excited about an experience as bracing as the one offered up here probably has other issues to deal with first.

The unconvinced or curious amongst you should really preview the final third: ‘Island’ (the most openly folky of the tracks here), the spry, effervescent ‘Throwing Bones’ and the gorgeously ebbing textures of ‘The Whole is on My Side’ encapsulate the richness and songcraft that are in abundance throughout.  And not to go on about his accent, but Anthony’s vocals are sublime: his rich Caledonian burr grounds the songs perfectly, giving everything a refined emotional boldness.  Glorious stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Second album The Wants was released at the end of 2010, taking the same degree of inventiveness and perhaps inevitably running off in several different directions at once.  The coherence of Checkmate Savage makes it the better album for me, though they’re certainly both worth checking out; The Phantom Band have a little musical revolution going on, and the sooner people sit up and take notice the better.

Jim

no.2 december 2010

Animals (1977) by Pink Floyd

Roger Waters bankrupted Pink Floyd twice – once financially with the temple to his own ego that was The Wall, and once creatively when he quit the band following The Final Cut.  Prior to all that, however, the band released Animals, whose ceaseless menace and tension hints at the divisions that were to come, as it remains the type of monolithic undertaking that could only be produced by someone with Waters’ inevitably divisive single-mindedness.

It‘s a tough ask of an album: three 10-plus minute tracks bookended by seemingly incidental ditties that collectively dismiss the human race as a choice of aggressive ‘Dogs’, self-satisfied ‘Pigs (3 different ones)’, or easily-led ‘Sheep’.  The scorn is channelled through every ominous moment of repose, every vicious lick of David Gilmour’s guitar, and peppered with the kind of wilfully obscure lyrics that the punk revolution had been set on usurping.  Waters’ turn of phrase is particularly delicious at times, however, making the record company-baiting ‘Have a Cigar’ from previous album Wish You Were Here seem positively contrite in comparison:

And it’s too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw around.
So have a good drown as you go down,
All alone,
Dragged down by the stone

And none of the tracks here could be easily carved off as singles – out of context they’d lose none of their power but most of their intent – so there’s little choice but to swallow the entire bitter pill whole.  All of which makes it easy to admire the clarity of the vision, preferably from a safe distance, but harder to actually enjoy.

Yet here’s the thing: there’s very little as cathartic as genuinely angry music – not conceived in order to court unit-shifting controversy, but angry at a concern it wishes to see corrected – and the message of Animals has been lost amongst the perceived nihilism, as it’s actually more of a warning than a judgement on the human condition.  The key to it lies in those incidental bookends; combining to less than 3 minutes of the total run time it’s easy to miss their purpose, but the opening line should be a clue: If you didn’t care what happened to me/and I didn’t care for you… Indeed, viewed from the perspective of how the future could look if the rampant hostility and greed that Waters saw all around continued (hello, 1980s!) the album takes on a decidedly humane slant.

That the biggest band in the world had gone to such efforts to address the evils that men could do ends up as an ultimately hopeful thing, hard though it may be to believe at first.  It’s worth persevering with, it is a majestic album.  Buy it for the awkward angry teen in your family this Christmas and, when they give up on it halfway through, keep it for yourself.  You can thank me later.

Jim

no.1  november 2010

Cast of Thousands (2003) by Elbow

Much-feted in recent times after winning the Mercury prize for 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid, Elbow have a level of sustained brilliance across their albums that I honestly don’t think anyone else has matched recently.  It’s difficult to see how they followed their gloomy-yet-ethereal debut with something as soulful as Cast of Thousands, but for me it’s one of the great albums of the early 21st century.

Part of the paradox of music this lovingly crafted is how much it draws your attention to the vocals, and Elbow have a tremendous asset in the instrument that is frontman Guy Garvey’s voice; to range from the ephemeral tenderness of ‘Fugitive Motel’ to the jagged edges of ‘Crawling with Idiot’ via the dry humour of ‘Buttons and Zips’ takes talent that few possess.  True, there are times when you’re not sure if he’s singing his parts or whether he just has lovely cadence and tone and is simply speaking his way through the songs, but he pours so much feeling into what he does that no-one’s going to raise any accusations of Shatner-style spoken word self-indulgence.  And with such beautiful lyrics, too, to raise a smile while gently breaking your heart:

I’m tired, I said
You always look tired, she said
I’m admired, I said
You always look tired, she said

It should be dour and dowdy, Elbow didn’t really write joyously upbeat songs at this stage in their career, but the beauty of how they present the world is effortlessly entwined in everything they do.

Take the one-two punch of ‘Switching off’ and ‘Not a Job’ – almost enough to make you yearn for the loss of something important, that such strikingly conveyed emotion would then speak to you through bitter personal experience.  And just as you begin wishing they’d, well, widen their canvas a little Richard Jupp’s drums stir ‘Grace Under Pressure’ to life, the strings ride in on the vocal’s coattails and the eponymous thousands pitch in with a chant that sums the whole album up perfectly.

Does it leave me misty-eyed, my critical faculties dulled?  Maybe a little, but it’s good to know that, whatever insipid musical abominations the limelight may thrust upon you in coming years, these guys will always have your back.

Jim

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