Bloody Awful Poetry – The Importance Of Lyrics

I’ve never really been a lyrics person. The melodies are what bring this boy to the yard. Even tiny moments where a piano puts in a brief appearance thirty seconds from the end of a song or when two voices combine to momentarily melt my innards tend to take precedence over a witty couplet or a heartfelt character assassination. Which is not to say I don’t appreciate fine word-smithery, more that it’s something I gradually acknowledge as the music becomes familiar. Whilst writing about John Grant‘s new album recently, it occurred to me that much of his coruscating honesty had already registered. So, am I paying more attention to artists whose lyrics I know I enjoy, in the same way I try not to listen too carefully to others, or do well-crafted words leap out at you uninvited?

These thoughts were prompted whilst finally reading Paul Whitelaw’s excellent biography of Belle & Sebastian which has unfairly sat on various shelves for several years. The author explores the time when Stuart Murdoch and Isobel Campbell’s relationship hit the skids and the latter prepared for an exit from the band she’d once loved. Having been portrayed as something of a pushover, accommodating Campbell’s numerous whims, Murdoch finally snaps and pours out his angry heart into several brutal lyrics: lyrics to songs on which Campbell actually performs. ‘I’m Waking Up To Us’ juxtaposes a typically jaunty melody with this blunt assessment, “You like yourself and you like men to kiss your arse, expensive clothes; please stop me there. I think I’m waking up to us: we’re a disaster.” I’ve listened to that song plenty of times and noted the acerbic tones in passing, but never before had I really stopped and processed the cumulative sense of bereavement and bitterness in that lyric.

Waking Up

Click the images or scroll down for a Spotify playlist linked to this piece

When a lyric clicks – whether on first or fiftieth play – I tend to cling to a perfectly quotable line or two, keenly anticipating their arrival whenever I hear the song in full thereafter. This, of course, is once again slightly missing the point. The subsequent explanation in ‘I’m Waking Up To Us’ softens the blows somewhat, but for me a well chosen couplet functions much like a musical hook: a euphoric moment in a track which sets my brain alight.

There are plenty of narrative lyrics which hold my attention from start to finish – not least Clarence Carter’s ever wonderful ‘Patches’, to give but one splendid example – but I was raised on a diet of early 90s chart music and then the linguistic pillage that was Britpop. When Rick Witter and Noel Gallagher are foisting their words into your ears, sometimes it’s better to just zone out. Britpop was all about the tunes – most of them stolen – and bellowing out nonsense like “slowly walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball” or “he takes all manner of pills and piles up analyst bills in the country” without any great focus on what the fuck it actually meant. It’s why Jarvis stood out so prominently at the time and the focus was kept largely on the riffs. As an impressionable teenager, I swallowed the Manics’ shtick whole and rather liked the idea of moulding my own sense of my intelligence via their raft of sleeve quotations and passing literary references in interviews. They were my saving grace, my flag in the summit, my band. Looking back now, still very much in love with most of their catalogue, I’m thankfully rather less possessed of a sense of my own self-importance and can see that endless droning about the clever quotation at the end of ‘The Masses Against The Classes’ and the painful need to try and find some merit in the ill-advised of ‘S.Y.M.M.’ was very much of the moment.

This more mature listener can now be found sniggering at pop smashes laced with not especially subtle innuendo. I shared a house whilst at uni with a lad with a slighty unhealthy obsession with Rachel Stevens and can still remember the day he found out about her webbed toes. His ungentlemanly fantasies were never quite the same again, although I suspect they were reignited a few years later when, chasing credibility, headlines and internet chatter, she released ‘I Said Never Again (But Here We Are).’ It doesn’t take a professor of the double entendre to spot the conceit at the heart of this particular lyric, perhaps best exemplified by the demure couplet: “I feel such a traitor, oh I let you in my back door.” Quite. And while I can barely remember more than the odd line of Dylan’s vast and exceptionally worth back catalogue, I am forever blessed with the memory of a member of S Club 7’s paean to anal sex.

GA OOOOH

I like to think that the various characters responsible for writing many of the nation’s biggest chart hits spend hours daring each other to get ludicrous phrases into their lyrics in the same way we also used to offer a quid to anyone who could manoeuvre fatuous pairings like ‘irate penguin’ into history essays*. Where else could things like ‘let’s go, Eskimo’ come from? Indeed, Girls Aloud deserve a special mention at this point. I loved almost all of their singles as a result of them being utterly and irresistibly catchy, but the lyrics were all over the place. The Rachel Stevens award for pop music traitordom went to ‘Something Kinda Ooooh’ for ‘“Something kinda ooooh, bumpin’ in the back room,” whilst recent best of filler, ‘Beautiful Cause You Love Me’ contained one of the most unintentionally hilarious couplets ever to make the charts: “Standin’ over the basin, I’ve been washin’ my face in.” Oh yes! Still, isn’t it funny how I’m so willing to make excuses for that, raising an eyebrow and proffering a wry smirk, but get my critical arsenal out for the likes of Shed Seven and the Stereophonics?

It’s possible that I draw a line somewhere between brash pop music and the notional integrity of indie rock, but even writing that makes me think that’s quite a pathetic standpoint to occupy. And, frankly, those two bands are very easy targets. I did own a few Sheds singles at one point but quickly grew tired of lyrics like: “She left me with no hope, it’s all gone up in smoke. She didn’t invite me, rode off with a donkey.” Truly, what the fuck is that all about? But is it any different to talk of Eskimos or pushing the button? Some bands even make a virtue of their lyrics being woefully undercooked, Kelly Jones seeming quite happy to dish up baffling non sequiturs for a bit of rawk gravel every couple of years. For recent comeback merchants Suede, it seemed that petroleum and gasoline were never far from Brett Anderson’s lyric book.

During their first reinvention, the band released the glorious ‘Beautiful Ones’, which kept Shell happy and managed a burst of imagery which might go down well with Rachel Stevens’ team of writers: “high on diesel and gasoline psycho for drum machine, shaking their bits to the hits.” The true nadir came during the utterly off their tits phase of ‘Head Music’ and ‘She’s In Fashion’ with the profound couplet “and she’s the taste of gasoline, and she’s as similar as you can get to the shape of a cigarette.” Everyone knew those lyrics were shit, but everyone nodded along and enjoyed the tunes. Suede would be mocked mercilessly for such slap-dash songwriting in the same piece as being awarded Single Of The Week. It’s just what they do, you see. ‘Bloodsports’ would suggest that things haven’t changed too much during the cleaner years.

Suede BO

But what of the bands almost immune from criticism, revered at every turn and held aloft as artists of a generation? Clearly, Radiohead have come out with some very peculiar lyrics over the years but I took as my example one of my absolute favourite songs of theirs, ‘Weird Fishes / Arpeggi’. I love it, as I’ve explained at length elsewhere, particularly because of the vocal interplay in the third verse. Couldn’t give the most minute of shits what is being said, I just go all wobbly when that moment hits. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. And what of the song’s lyrics? “I get eaten by the worms and weird fishes,” is neither especially good nor especially bad, but in the track itself Thom is doing his level best to use his vocal as simply another instrument anyway. Straight out of the Michael Stipe school of art-rock mumbling and in no way detrimental to the power of the song.

But look back at old school folders and you’ll see band logos and fragments of lyrics all over the place. Do they matter more at that age? Is our increasing exposure to pretty much anything ever made as soon as we want it robbing us of the opportunity to absorb the true heart of the songs we hear? The feeling of being blindsided by a great bit of writing is still one of joyous intensity, whatever the frequency. I can still remember listening to ‘Karen’ by The National and thinking, ‘hang on a minute. What did he just sing?’ at the lyric, “It’s a common fetish for a doting man, to ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand.” How’s that for imagery, tutu jumpers and back door monitors?

Just as the whole ‘but what does it really mean?’ question at school nearly put me off poetry for life, I increasingly realise that I don’t need to understand what they’re on about, preferring to simply bask in the occasional majesty that nonchalantly drifts out of the speakers. Whether it’s new stuff like Martin Rossiter’s ‘I Must Be Jesus’ – “If life’s unkind, then you must be divine. And, yes, I do mean literally” – or the returning triumph of an old friend – “Oh, I didn’t realise that you wrote poetry. I didn’t realise you wrote such bloody awful poetry, Mr. Shankly” – I rather like not looking too hard. If it takes a rock biog to finally make me realise that something clever has been going on under my nose without me ever noticing, then so be it. The alchemy of great songwriting is way out of my reach and, while I’m never shy about casting the first (or second or third) stone when critiquing a record, I’ll always keep listening with the hope and expectation that I will find something truly magical. No problem so far.

*E.g. Disraeli was left, like an irate penguin, snubbed by Peel despite Gladstone’s appointment to the government

Not quite just played, but recently

It’s been a while since I did a rambling ‘things-I’ve-been-listening-to-and-quite-like’ type post, so this be one of them.  While plenty of new stuff has crept in, this week has involved a lot of Manics. I’ve been suckered in by the Mini-LP, 2CD Japanese reissues of their studio albums prior to ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, despite owning all of them and most of the accompanying b-sides. They are utterly lovely though and it has resulted in me realising a couple of things. Firstly, I know the b-sides from the ‘Everything Must Go’ and ‘This Is My Truth’ like they are unofficial national anthems, something that’s not replicated with the more recent albums, suggesting that as I’ve got older, I’ve spent less time with b-sides, despite rabidly gathering them all up. Secondly, as a direct consequence of the last point, the bonus tracks on ‘Lifeblood’, in particular, took me aback. They’re really very, very good and the consistency was still there, even if my attention wasn’t. Oh, and it was another excuse to listen to their gloriously bombastic version of ‘Umbrella’. I love the idea of bonus disc reissues and the notion of an alternative history being offered up by those lesser-known songs. Sadly, very few reissues offer much of any real merit, but these are wonderful collections and this allows me to now say that I didn’t just buy them because they’re shiny and nice. I also bought them to reevaluate a musical legacy. Albeit one in shiny packaging.

I bought The Low Anthem album, ‘Oh My God, Charlie Darwin’, whilst down in London for a bit of real life, over the counter, music you can touch, record shopping back in April. Back then, it was proudly described as a ‘Rough Trade Exclusive’ and it came in a blue card, hand stamped sleeve. It struck me as a marvellous but curious little record and certain tracks got pretty regular plays. I now find it quite surprising to see it receiving a sizeable media focus; it seemed such a tiny, niche release only a few months back. Anyway, because I’m a sad obsessive, I ended up purchasing the vinyl pressing of the new Bella Union release of this wonderful album this week and it sounds absolutely magnificent. It turns out that I haven’t actually bought exactly the same thing twice. Apparently, the album’s been remastered in the interim and resequenced for some reason. I can’t say I really noticed all the much in the way of sonic difference, but then people say that their debut album, ‘What The Crow Brings’, is poorly recorded and I think that sounds rather lovely too. What I can recommend is the pressing quality of this vinyl edition and also that aforementioned debut album which you can buy from their site as a CD preorder (they’re making some more copies – hand stamped and all that malarky) along with a free, instant download to be getting on with. It’s worth also noting that this is yet another solid gold release by Bella Union, a label seemingly unable to do any wrong. Peruse their site, click buy next to pretty much anything and you’ll not be disappointed.

The latest Ohbijou record, ‘Beacons’, is getting played rather a lot round these parts. Ethereal is probably the best word for it and, frankly, it’s more eloquent than sodding marvellous which is the only other way I’ve got for describing it. Pick any track at random, have a listen and I defy you to not fall in love with it. Seriously. Did I mention that it’s on Bella Union?

The new album by The Rumble Strips arrived this week and my first impressions were not great. Apparently, it’s a big step on from the last album, it’s less like Dexy’s and it had added Mark Ronson. Hmm. It’s not a huge success. Firstly, they still sound very like Dexy’s at times, just not as well as they did on the first album and thus it is less enjoyable. Secondly, the sense of fun that made me really rather warm to their debut (‘Girls And Boys In Love’, in particular) doesn’t seem to be there. Now, this is fine in itself, but not when it hasn’t really been replaced with anything else. I’ll give it time, but I think the attempted reinvention may not have been necessary after all.

Plenty of time has been spent picking over all of the b-sides and remixes offered up by the luxurious and really rather shiny (spot the pattern?) Girls Aloud singles collection box set. It’s not hugely revelatory – I knew they were great beforehand, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable stuff for dipping in and out of. The musical equivalent of a ‘toilet book’, I suppose. For example, the weird vocoder effects used on the single mix of ‘Untouchable’ didn’t warrant an additional purchase after buying the album, but it makes for an enjoyable listen when offered up as part of as massive collection of top-notch pop.

I continue to delight in the majesty of the self-titled album by The Duckworth Lewis Method, such is its summery splendour. They recently performed ‘Test Match Special’ on Test Match Special. Arf, arf! What larks. Still, a suitable way to celebrate a decent performance by England this weekend. Alternatively, celebrate shite boats and being pissed by downloading the bonus track, ‘Pedalo’, from iTunes. It was one of the first albums I reviewed for my new glossy-paged home and this leads me nicely to talking about one of the other records from that first batch: Magnolia Electric Co‘s ‘Josephine’, which is Jason Molina‘s finest record in absolutely yonks. And that’s taking as given that the last few have been of a high quality nevertheless. In entirely predictable fashion, I bought the vinyl to accompany my promo CD and it is a fantastic pressing. This is all the more impressive as I’ve found Secretly Canadian vinyl to be of a varying standard in the past and this record truly deserved a decent outing on wax. And so it is. It’s soulful, it’s warm and yet still oddly bleak. Such is Molina’s way with a guitar. If neither Magnolia Electric Co nor his earlier outings as Songs : Ohia aren’t in your record collection you really should set about correcting that criminal oversight.

The quite simply bloody lovely new record by Wilco arrived from the delightfully mispriced (£8.98, free delivery!) Amazon this week and it does not disappoint. Although it seems to be getting some revisionist slagging, I loved ‘Sky Blue Sky’ and so already had high hopes for the appallingly titled, ‘Wilco (The Album)’. The vinyl pressing (What do you expect? It matters!!) is exceptional and the music’s not far behind. At times gently chugging, at times more upbeat and almost poppy than Wilco have been for some time, it’s a concise, summery record that you need to get now so it can soundtrack any remaining nice weather before the end of August. Or you could just wait until the inevitable reissue with a bonus disc that seems to have been the norm for the last few records. Tracks like ‘The Thanks I Get’ were simply tossed out as ‘bonus material’, despite being of album-worthy standard. Here’s hoping for more suitably spiffing bonus stuff this time out.

Having mentioned during the Glastonbury weekend blog overload that I was rather taken with The Hot 8 Brass Band, I’ve been giving their album a few listens of late and, while it’s not one I’ll play from start to finish all that often, it’s does have some truly inspired moments. The take on ‘What’s My Name’ by Snoop Doggy Dogg is reason enough to buy the record, before you even get to the charming interpretation of ‘Sexual Healing’. Suitably bargainous price and copies in stock here.

I’ll conclude with my current favourite pop nuggets. I recently mentioned that I’ve come round to the idea that La Roux, despite looking like an aggressive baby, has released one of the songs of the year with ‘Bulletproof’ and I can’t really see what might actually better it right now. I’m quite taken with the Freemasons single with Sophie Ellis-Bextor, even if she does sing “Heartbreak, make me a darn-ser.” It niggles away at your head that one and it’s hard to shake off. ‘New In Town’ by Little Boots is rather charming but I don’t imagine it has much staying power. The whole of the latest Pet Shop Boys album is still satisfying the vast majority of my pop needs. Feel free to recommend me any great new pop you can think of below.

Right then, suitably rambling as always but with a twist this time. The good folks at both teatunes and Jo-Whiley-hating* The Word magazine regularly share Spotify playlists relating to what they’re banging on about. So, I thought I’d shamelessly steal the idea and try it myself. It doesn’t cover everything listed here – Magnolia Electric Co’s new album’s not on there yet, neither are the Wilco album or La Roux – but it’ll give you a nice idea. Try it by clicking here.

 

*T’was them that made us have Fearne Cotton on daytimes. They killed her.

I hardly said a word

I’ve had a thoroughly splendid week in terms of listening pleasure. I had an interesting conversation about musical snobbery and what makes a good pop song during several hours in bar that played the most chronic selection of shite I’ve heard in some time. A quick comment about how the Girls Aloud track playing when we went in was probably the best thing that they’d managed in about two hours spiraled off into something far more complicated. Anyway, the conversation leads me nicely to my first point of interest this week, Lily Allen.

A few months ago I read that she’d posted a couple of new tracks on her Myspace and I made a mental note to have a listen at some point. I finally did that today and I’m pleasantly surprised. There were some decent tracks on debut album; sampling Allen Toussaint is always good by me and ‘Alfie‘ is pop genius, but for the new record she’s gone in an electro-pop direction. The two new tunes are splendid, in particular the first offering, ‘I Don’t Know’ which has an enjoyable quiet/loud Girls Aloud/Sugababes feel to it. Not that I imagine she’d be especially thrilled with the comparison. The second track, ‘I Could Say’ sounds a little like a Pet Shop Boys ballad. Anyhoo, whatever I think, I’d recommend having a listen via the link above.

Speaking of the PSBs, they recently recorded a cover of Madness‘My Girl’ while rehearsing for a live performance with Suggs. On this delightful demo, Neil takes lead vocals and it’s a wonderfully quirky take on a classic tune. You can access it via the ‘exclusive tracks’ page in the ‘Product’ area on their website. Or you could just click here. You choose, why don’t you?

A final true ‘pop’ moment before moving on. As I’m pointing out rather splendid bits of popular music that I’m rather fond of, I’ll give a quick mention to Rihanna‘s ‘Don’t Stop The Music’. Now, I know this isn’t exactly new and I know that you probably cut your ears off after the ninety-seventh time you heard ‘Umbrella‘, but this is a true pop classic. Meticulously crafted, never quite as fast as you think it’s going to be and yet deceptively uplifting. Ver Tube allows a listen below.

I’ve been living with Weller‘s ’22 Dreams’ for a week now, and it’s almost as good as the reviews are suggesting. Let’s get one thing straight before we go on – it ain’t a five-star kind of album. It can’t be, really, because of its quite deliberate ebbs and flows. A few tracks add nothing, and the final, noodly instrumental track, ‘Night Lights’ really outstays its welcome. But it’s a definite four-star kind of album and one which repays repeated listens. That’s not especially surprising when you bear in mind that there are 21 tracks to absorb. Apparently, the deluxe edition has sold out already, but you’ll not be missing much if you’ve not got it. ‘Rip Up The Pages’ and ‘Love’s Got Me Crazy’ are the additional tunes – both rather good, and probably more deserving of a place on the main album that some of the more fanciful farting about, but all of that stuff does rather add to its charm. Have a listen via the link below and make sure you do it in one sitting; it works better that way.

I should just finish by noting the fact that a true great, Bo Diddley died earlier this week. If you know nowt about the man or his music, you should probably get that sorted. One of the ‘Chess‘ collections should suffice. Some far more professional and worthy tributes can be found via the following links:

1. Richard Hawley’s tribute on the BBC site

2. First ten minutes of Gary Crowley’s show, filling in for Tom Robinson on 6music on Friday 6th June

3. Mark Lamarr’s ‘God’s Jukebox’ from Saturday 7th June. Various tunes and references throughout.

Fizzy cola bottles for me every time

I had no idea there was a video for ‘In The Neighbourhood’ by Tom Waits, but it would seem the Tube wishes to enlighten me.

I’ve just ordered the new biog by Patrick Humphries. His Nick Drake book was a little dull, but the reviews for this one have been universally positive, despite not saying an awful lot about the quality of the writing. Still, with Waits it’s generally worth a punt.

This is in complete contrast with the music I’ve been listening to thus far today. Picked up the Sugababes best of for a fiver in Woolies earlier, which in turn led to the Girls Aloud greatest hits. Also had a first listen to the debut album by Justice, which is an awful like Daft Punk put through a blender and the latest Josh Rouse finally got a full airing. Better than ‘Subtitulo’, which is more than enough good news for me. Splendidly cheap music DVDs in Woolies at the moment, by the way. The highlight is the recent Marvin Gaye CD/DVD retrospective thingy, ‘The Real Thing.’ Well worth the fiver they’re asking. Other entertainment shops are available.

For the time being at least.