04. Laura Marling – Alas I Cannot Swim

jp 40 04

There was a time when Later… was worth watching from start to finish. This then morphed into a time when it was worth taping so that you could skip the odd poor performance. These days, it seems a programme well suited to Sky+, so sporadic are the truly captivating performances in any one series of the one remaining music show on telly. One Saturday morning in November 2007, I was flicking hastily through the previous night’s episode so as to find the two songs performed by Richard Hawley. I must have been in a charitable mood as, for those artists I didn’t really know, I was allowing each song about thirty seconds to impress itself upon me before I pressed down on the fast forward button again. So utterly beguiling was Laura Marling’s performance of ‘New Romantic’ that by the time the song was finished it was actually rewind that my thumb was hovering over. I played the performance again before grabbing the good lady to confirm that this was indeed something pretty special. I completely forgot that I was waiting on a second song by Richard Hawley and went charging off to the computer to attempt to find anything and everything that featured this stunning voice.

04 Laura Marling

It wasn’t long before the ‘My Manic And I’ EP dropped through the letterbox and went straight on the turntable. ‘My Manic And I’ and ‘Night Terror’ were clearly both terrific, stirringly atmospheric pieces even then but it was that one song, ‘New Romantic’, that I was fixated with. Twice in the song, Laura sings, “and I’m sorry to whichever man should meet my sorry state. Watch my sturdy, lonesome gait and beware: I will never love a man, ’cause love and pain go hand in hand, and I can’t do it, again.” There’s just something about the way she delivers it that surely makes every man listening to her there and then wants to prove her wrong and make her reconsider.

I have never seen an artist captivate a room in quite the way Marling did in Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms last year. The hushed silence between songs as she languidly meandered through the rigmarole of structured chat with the audience was palpably electric. Everyone was hanging on her every ‘erm’ and as she offered us an early listen to what would, some thirteen months later, be her next single, ‘Goodbye England’, the same reverence being meted out to the songs we all knew was present. No chit-chat during the new stuff, no dashing off for a piss. She had us all captivated, and I suspect she knew it. Some performers just have that indefinable something and Marling has more of that something than most.

Alas I Cannot Swim’, the album that appeared in a slightly gaudy cardboard box in February 2008, was every bit as good as anyone had any right to hope it would be. I was initially dismayed to find that ‘New Romantic’ hadn’t made it, but it was pretty quickly clear that it wouldn’t have sat well with the more fleshed out sound of the album. I rather like that it’s out there to be found by those who love the album but missed the early singles – a very special treat in the wilderness. That fleshed out sounding album is a remarkable feat by anyone’s standards, but that idea that this is the sound of an eighteen year old making their first record is plain intimidating. The rich, textured voices belies the lack of living and the music is a complex web of folk, pop and rock that delights at every unexpected twist and turn.

Night Terror’ comes with its own brooding sense of foreboding and really manages to get under the skin like well-crafted songs can sometimes do. ‘Cross Your Fingers’ is, conversely, an upbeat, chipper pop track that confirms a more interesting musical palette than most of Marling’s contemporaries. ‘You’re No God’ builds to a strangely euphoric singalong, while hidden last track, ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’, offers a message for life with its, “work more, earn more, live more, have more fun,” refrain.

I could easily sit here and list each song’s defining (and fabulous) characteristic, but I think your time might be better spent with the record itself. A brief word about packaging. The initial version of the album came as a ‘Songbox’, with wrapping paper, a board game, several postcards and a beautiful lyric booklet and a gig ticket that sadly went unused. I’ve since added in the ‘My Manic And I’ book that came out at the same time as the EP and is worth tracking down, along with a pack of Laura Marling branded playing cards, which are rather less essential. This unique approach to releasing a record only served to further endear her to her target audience and we lapped it up. Similarly, there are two different vinyl pressings available – UK and US, though both are now quite hard to find – with one providing a CD containing a live performance at London’s Union Chapel and the other a DVD with a tour documentary. Both are well worth the cash outlay and the (UK, in particular) vinyl pressing quality is superb. It really is a remarkable debut and Laura Marling really does have as stunning a voice as I suggested at the start of this piece. She is beguiling, bewitching and in possession of a beautiful sound. She is surely capable of great things. Indeed, ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ is the first of such great things.

05. Blur – Think Tank

jp 40 05

Alternate weekends during my time at university were spent travelling across the country on either National Express or Virgin Trains in order to see the good lady and these almost equally miserable journeys were livened to varying degrees by whatever music I had chosen to accompany me. Even though I had one of those shitty zip up wallets that housed about sixteen CDs – and, coincidentally, also scratched sixteen CDs – I often found myself rueing the fact that I hadn’t picked quite the right combination of tunes for that particular journey.

05 Blur

I can still vividly remember crawling through Sheffield as the gloom was beginning to descend, running alongside the tramlines in the outskirts of the city, as ‘Jets’ finally clicked. It is, by some stretch, the most unusual track on ‘Think Tank’ which, considering that ‘Think Tank’ is, by some stretch, the most unusual Blur album, makes it a relatively ‘difficult’ track by their standards. Jazzy and masterfully close to sounding directionless, it marauds around for over six minutes, creeping into your subconscious, laying siege to the space normally reserved for insistent but probably shit chart fodder. The only real lyrics are, “jets are like comets at sunset”. This, not especially profound, mantra whirls in and out across the whole track and it is, on the face of it, a completely nonsensical and inconsequential diversion. Despite this, I still find it great. And, as it’s probably my least favourite track on the album, it’s fair to say that the rest of ‘Think Tank’ means an awful lot to me.

Of course, all of the initial attention was given over to album closer, ‘Battery In Your Leg’, as it was the only track to feature the now ex-Blur member, Graham Coxon. It’s a beautiful and emotionally wrought way to bring things to a close but there’s a more remarkably emotive track on the record. ‘Out Of Time’ is simply one of the greatest songs of this disappearing decade. Heartbreakingly tender, beautifully sung and so deceptively simple, it is one of the band’s great singles and, while it is still cherished by many, I wonder if it might become one of those ‘Buried Treasure’ records that magazines for people with beards and American Express cards write about in twenty or thirty years from now. The record’s other singles, ‘Crazy Beat’ and ‘Good Song’ have little in common other than their home album. ‘Good Song’ lollops along, a sweet and sincere love song, Damon cooing, “you seem very beautiful to me.” ‘Crazy Beat’ was intended as the ‘pop smash’ on the album and it duly obliged by bulldozing its way past the competition to the heady heights of Number 18. Perhaps the top five placed ‘Out Of Time’ demonstrated that the Blur audience had grown up a bit and wanted something a little less noisy. Perhaps it confirmed that ‘Crazy Beat’ wasn’t quite as good as it should have been. Whatever, it sounded like (say this next bit in a Captain Darling voice) enormous FUN just now and I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for it, despite knowing it wasn’t really prime Albarn fodder.

The Norman Cook influenced ‘Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club’ and ‘Gene By Gene’ are surprisingly effective and have something of a late period Clash feel to them. I should say that this theory has been met with some confused looks in the past, so if you think I’m talking utter bollocks right now, it might be best to just skip to the next sentence and forget I said it. This record seems more dependant on repetition than any Blur album before it and yet I would argue that it works to its advantage. Two of the album’s standouts, ‘Ambulance’ and ‘Caravan’, both take a fairly circular route to getting the job done and create a spellbindingly hypnotic soundscape in both cases. The latter features some of Damon’s finest singing on the whole record, particularly the drawn out section when he explains that, “when it comes you’ll feel the weight of it.” While the band clearly took great musical strides on this album, critics too often overlook the extraordinary vocal performance from Albarn across these thirteen tracks.

It’s not a perfect album. I think that’s clear even from this glowing piece. ‘Blur’ probably edges it for me. At times, ‘Parklife’ still delivers that phenomenal hit it did all those years ago while ‘13’ is a record for very specific times in life. Despite all of this, ‘Think Tank’ is essentially my ‘adult’ Blur record. It’s the only one of their records to be released once I was out of my teenage years and the only one to truly soundtrack important events. The recent reunion was a joy and the euphoria I experienced as one of several thousand very sweaty people in Wolverhampton’s Civic Hall in late June will take some beating, but it runs the risk of almost writing this incarnation of Blur out of the history books. ‘Think Tank’ deserves much better.

06. Richard Hawley – Coles Corner

jp 40 06

If I had to pick an artist of the last decade, Richard Hawley would be a strong contender. ‘Lowedges’, ‘Late Night Final’ and ‘Truelove’s Gutter’ were all close to being included in this list and only really missed out because of how much they split the non-existent vote, if you’ll pardon the rather crude expression. This album is so heart-meltingly perfect that it leaves the others a little way behind and, as such, they tend to be grouped together in my affections and harder to separate out for placings in the lower thirties or somesuch. Putting this one straight in the top ten was a far easier decision.

06 Richard Hawley

My final year of university was spent largely in the Headingley area of Leeds, occasionally venturing onto campus to do some work. After halls and the always imminent danger of the hideous block of flats where I lived for my second year, the final year was like a suburban paradise. In amongst the not really all that interesting retail options in Headingley could be found the charmingly untidy Polar Bear record shop. It had a brother in the city centre which offered better stock and seemingly better prices, but its convenience meant that I often found myself wandering over for a bit of quality browsing time.  With such vast swathes of time set aside to intricate exploration of a fairly limited stock, I wasn’t far from having a pretty clear idea of exactly what they had for sale. When I found myself hugely taken with ‘The Nights Are Cold’ by Richard Hawley, on a free Uncut cover CD, I was pretty certain that I’d seen his album in Polar Bear for £7.99. At the next available opportunity, I was back in the shop, handing over the somewhat exhausted Switch card for yet more music before spending the next twenty four hours or so absorbing the beautiful music found therein.

I was already sold on his knack with a tune, but I somehow didn’t realise at the time, or when ‘Lowedges’ appeared for that matter either, quite how much I would end up loving his music. It was the release of ‘Coles Corner’ in September 2005 that suddenly slotted everything into place. The dearly departed (and much written about already) Reveal Records in Derby had it on in the shop when I popped in on the Saturday after release and it sounded magnificent. On this occasion, their excellent choice of music-to-shop-to was irrelevant, as that was the exact album I’d come in to buy in the first place, based on several gushing broadsheet reviews ahead of its release.

Everything about it is perfect. The cover art is beautiful, the blurred elderly couple in the background making the lonely Richard in the foreground seem even more alone and anxious. And the songs. Oh, the fucking songs! The attention to detail is phenomenal and the effect is utterly beguiling. One of the album’s strongest songs is put right at the front and its title track is quite some way to set out your stall. Grandiose, eloquent and lyrically full of romantic expectation, it perfectly captures that feeling of incipient affairs of the heart.

Just Like The Rain’ canters along, effortlessly sounding like a sixties classic that somehow escaped the public’s attention the first time around, while ‘Hotel Room’ is one of the least annoying, and therefore one of the best, songs written about rock stars and drug addiction. It’s a far from ‘woe is me’ as it could possible be and manages to make an awkward subject matter strangely compelling. ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ made for a splendid single choice and ushers in side two of the album perfectly, the trademark soaring guitar break doing some of its best work on the album around the 2:30 mark.

The aforementioned title track slugs it out with ‘The Ocean’ to be the very best track on the album. ‘Coles Corner’ just edges it in my book, but the latter track is so good Hawley pretty much remade it on his latest, ‘Truelove’s Gutter’, as ‘Open Up Your Door’. It swoops, it soars and if it involved a bit more beef-slapping and box-thumping it could be a Scott Walker classic.

As I said earlier, plenty of his records were contenders for this list and I don’t hesitate in recommending each and every one of them to you. I would also urge you to catch him in concert at some point, provided you’re a bit of a muso and can delight in having the hairs on the back of your neck stood to attention by some delicately deployed percussion. There are those who reckon his stuff is a bit samey and that each album is a retread of the last. I don’t really buy that, and the one aforementioned remake aside, his most recent release is a really step on from 2007’s ‘Lady’s Bridge’. He’s never going to a chart-shagging superstar but I can’t imagine he’d ever want to be. Just so long as enough of us keep parting with our cash for his sublime songs that he can keep putting them out there, I think the bequiffed one will be perfectly happy. I know I will be.

07. Maps – We Can Create

jp 40 07

We had just moved house and it had taken the best part of two weeks to get the internet up and running again. After an hour or so spent attempting to convince myself that it was actually possible to somehow catch up on fourteen days worth of missed internet access, I finally gave up and pootled over to the Norman Records website. This particular online record shop had slowly been winning me over, having first visited when hunting for an out of print Magnolia Electric Co release. Packed with quirky reviews, curious items and a tremendous supply of vinyl, the Norm site has become increasingly important to me in recent years as a result of all of my local independent stores dying. It is where a sizeable chunk of my new music is now purchased from now – although that may change with the abolition of the invaluable reserve option – but back in April 2007 I was just starting to get the bug.

07 Maps

As I sat there, browsing new music in the hope of taking my mind off the still unfiled stuff everywhere around me,  I noticed that Norm were banging on about a new album that they’d been given some upfront copies of that they thought was pretty bloody good. It didn’t take much longer for the hyperbole to kick in and next thing I knew I was putting together a small order on their site. That Saturday, ‘We Can Create’ by Maps turned up and I now can’t imagine what my record collection was like before that crucial day. (Ok, that’s yet more hyperbole – without that album, and its subsequent impact, there’d be a few less CDs in the racks and a small gap along the vinyl shelves)

I became more than a little obsessed with this record. The CD was played over and over, for weeks on end. When the novelty of that wore off, I purchased the double 10” vinyl edition and proceeded to do much that same with that. I even found myself, some months later, winning an auction on eBay for an unmastered, slightly different version of the album just to hear those minor differences and pore over what might have been. ‘We Can Create’ was the first album I’d been truly geeky over in the best part of ten years, but I loved every second. I’ve talked, at great length, about the music on this album in the past so I’m hoping the irrepressible enthusiasm is enough to get you to listen if you haven’t previously done so. But, having just said that, I should conclude by saying a few things about this remarkable, beautiful and hugely unassuming record.

The almost whispery washes of vocal sound throughout this album make it perfect for late night journeys or contemplative hours sat by a rain-soaked window but the euphoric synths and expertly manipulated electronic patterns can soundtrack those lost hours equally effectively. It’s been called a 21st century answer to shoegaze and compared to aspects of Spiritualized’s classic, ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’, but I genuinely haven’t heard another album like it. It’s infectious, it’s charming and it’s great from start to finish. If you have somehow ignored my recommendations up to this point, either do something about it now or find somewhere else to receive your mildly interesting musical commentary.