BEST OF 2012: 22. Graham Coxon – A+E

My general Blur infatuation extends to Graham Coxon‘s solo work, whatever mood he’s in. I enjoyed the scratchy early efforts, leapt around shamelessly to the poppier pair and then fell deeply in love with his acoustic epic, ‘The Spinning Top‘. The man responsible for some of the greatest guitar lines in musical history cannot avoid cracking riffs and beautiful melodies, even when he is leaving the edges of his music unsmoothed. And he really is on ‘A+E‘, which from its cover inwards suggests an album that’s given up gently flirting and being nice and is now opting for the take me or leave me strategy.

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What’ll It Take‘ lurches forward, all bleepy electro noises across the trademark Coxon chug and an especially minimalist lyric, largely asking “what’ll it take to make you people dance?” It’s hugely infectious, a little bit silly and utterly adorable. It is what we look to Coxon for and what he so often delivers perfectly. The guy in the skinny fit t shirt and the battered trainers to the right of Damon was always the manic, geeky indie kid and that passion for sound is present in everything he does. ‘A+E‘ is the closest he’s gone to his more abrasive sound in some time, but this is far from inaccessible. Just don’t have your first listen with it as background music. Let it wash over you, toy with your ears and draw you in.

Yes, you can pluck the odd track for a playlist or as part of an unimaginative shuffle, but this lot works best taken in one sitting. The substantial mid paced rumble of ‘Meet And Drink And Pollinate‘ beefs up the first side of the album, while ‘Seven Naked Valleys‘ is as good a start to the second half as most records have managed this year. Scuzzy horn sounds loop around an exhilarating mess of a guitars, bass and organ, while a drum pattern which wouldn’t be out of place on a funk 45 drives it all long. The old cliché that Graham was always pulling against Damon’s preference for pop melodies is one again dimmed here, with plenty of ‘A+E‘ proving to be thoroughly hummable. ‘Running For Your Life’, with its repeated “get back down the M1 cos we don’t like you” refrain, catches the slacker indie sound of the Nineties perfectly, sounding at once like a revered tune from that time. In a year when looking back at the majesty of Blur was once again a pleasure, Coxon has also manage to move forward in triumphant fashion.

I even went to Port Talbot for them

Last week, I attended my thirteenth Manics concert. Even I had started to wonder if I might actually get bored of them at some point and yet they proved once again why I adore them quite so much. The three of them truly love being in that band. They love being on stage with each other, they love playing those songs for these people and James seems to have really grown into the role of all-conquering showman. On this recent tour, they played the whole of the new album, ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, took a ten minute break and then belted out an hour of classics. It’s hard to pick fault with a second of it.

‘JFPL’ is a monstrously great rock album. It’s been called The Holy Bible’s second coming and, to be fair, there are some similarities but I’m still not sure that that’s the best way to approach this album. If anything, it’s the perfect blend of the Manics just prior to Richey’s disappearance and the Manics not long thereafter. The quite beautiful arrangements on ‘This Joke Sport Severed’ and ‘William’s Last Words’ are pure ‘late period Manics’, while the splendidly shouty chorus of ‘All Is Vanity’ and  the terrifying propulsion of ‘She Bathed Herself In A Bath Of Bleach’ come straight from the military era of 1994. It’s a truly fabulous album and a likely contender for my album of the year. That said, if you’ve never liked the Manics, this isn’t going to change your mind.

The rapturous response to pretty much every song in the classics set further reinforced my belief that I will never tire of this band. ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ is one of the best songs of all time to witness live and the ferocity of this latest rendition was probably the best performance of it I’ve ever witnessed. Even early b-side, ‘Sorrow 16’ (great chorus, forgettable verse), prompted plenty of cheers and by the time we were all haplessly singing along to ‘A Design For Life’ the world had been put to rights and James, Nicky and Sean had triumphed once again. God, I love this band.

I spent much of last night gazing out of the window at perpetual drizzle whilst listening to a selection of Manics b-sides from across the years, although I seemed to alight on the ‘Everything Must Go’ era. (Yes, I am sad enough to have all of the b-sides categorised by album on the iPod.) Now, I know that my love of these tracks come from my fanboy-ish desire to hoover up every last note whenever possible and thus, with familiarity, so often a liking grows, but I genuinely believe that there is some outrageously good songwriting tucked away on numerous Manics b-sides. If I were to pick three, just from that era, for you to track down, I’d send you off to hear ‘No One Knows What It Feels Like To Be Me’, ‘Mr Carbohydrate‘ and ‘First Republic’. Go on, treat yourself. And if you can’t, there’s an email address in the previous post, get in touch and I’ll see if I can help you, er, find the songs.

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As for albums of the year, if I had to pick my top 5 right now, it’d be these…

5. Super Furry AnimalsDark Days / Light Years

4. Trashcan SinatrasIn The Music

3. Graham CoxonThe Spinning Top

2. Manic Street PreachersJournal For Plague Lovers

1. DovesKingdom Of Rust

It’ll all change, of course, but there have been some truly wonderful albums already this year. Bubbling under for that list are Grizzly Bear, Lily Allen, Jarvis, Madness, Duckworth Lewis Method, Moz and the new Magnolia Electric Co album, ‘Josephine‘, which is the best thing Jason Molina’s ever done. I’ve not had it that long, so it’s not in the top 5 just yet, but I suspect it may get there.

It’s like buses

Good old Graham Coxon. Not only is he a member of one of the greatest bands of recent times, creator of one of the early contenders for 2009’s album of the year and one of the few musicians willing to contribute honestly and openly to online discussion boards, but he’s pioneering exciting and alternative ways to make money out of music. As huge fans of music, this can only be pleasing news for us, as the more that musicians develop ways to make releasing tunes into the current climate viable, the more great music we’ll continue to be graced with.

Coxon’s new single, ‘Sorrow’s Army’, is available in one format only. An art print. Ok, that art print comes with a download code for that track, but the release itself is something you can’t actually play. The print itself is rather lovely (click to see the image, as uploaded by ‘salmon’ from the Blur forum) and sets you back £4-£5 depending on where you purchase it from. Not bad for an art print and it’s worth remembering that the song on its own would have sold for 79p. Not a bad mark up. Naturally, art prints aren’t suddenly going to become the format du jour, but it’s a great example of an artist adapting to the rapidly changing commercial nature of music selling. Graham’s fans all seem pretty chuffed with the item and it’ll be raking in the cash for his record label. It’s certainly a more appealing alternative format than the USB releases that Keane and Ed Harcourt have attempted of late and, while I’d never have considered buying ‘Sorrow’s Army’ as a single, having already purchased the rather splendid album, ‘The Spinning Top’, my five quid went winging its way to Transgressive Records quicker than, well, much quicker than they actually sent the bloody thing, but we won’t dwell on that.

This seems like a good time to mention just how utterly terrific his new album is. I’m not sure what I was expecting from it – certainly not what I got. The Record Store Day exclusive 10" of ‘In The Morning’ gave a pretty decent indicator, with eight minutes of acoustic splendour, gentle vocals and a delicate touch not normally associated with solo Coxon.

Two immediate highlights are the aforementioned, ‘In The Morning’, and ‘Look Into The Light’. Listen to both below.

See? Now go and buy the album.

What, you need more convincing and a more persuasive pitch?

‘The Spinning Top’ is Graham’s masterpiece, lengthy but enthralling, beautifully sung and exquisitely rendered. There are touches of Nick Drake, particularly on ‘Look Into The Light’, and, as he’s explained in numerous interviews, the music of Davey Graham sent him off in this direction in the first place. Gently affecting, hugely understated and unlikely to immediately strike you as a stone cold classic, ‘The Spinning Top’ slowly abducts each and every heart string until suddenly the one, almighty tug brings you on side and from that point onwards there’s no looking back.

Now go and buy the album.

Apparently they are getting back together

Paul Weller and Graham Coxon have just released a three-track EP thingy via the usual download services. In a couple of weeks it’ll also be on 7″. What’s interesting is that two commercially potent artists get together and bash out some spikey indie rock and yet the one format they don’t touch is CD. People who get paid to talk bollocks about the future are already announcing the death of the CD. A load of old cock, naturally. But, what’s more interesting is the strength of the 7″. Indie bands are releasing singles on CD, download and 2×7″ these days. Yes, part of it is about being collectors’ items, but surely part of it is also because vinyl is cool. Anyway, the EP is decent enough, although nothing life-changing. But then I don’t imagine you thought it would be. Best place I’ve found to purchase is 7 Digital, with 320kb/s mp3s of all three tracks for £1.77. Can’t complain.
Speaking of vinyl and Graham Coxon, I nipped down to the sorting office this morning to retrieve another lovingly mauled parcel from the care of Royal Mail. Inside said parcel was an item I’ve been after for years, the double-vinyl, gatefold edition of ‘Blur’ by Blur. If I was being Sherlock Holmes I’d say that the previous owner was an alcoholic based on the scratches at the start of each side of vinyl, a la the scratches around the keyhole on Watson’s father’s watch. Snap, crackle and pop aside, it sounds bloody brilliant. I’m well aware, as indeed I’ve said before, that I tend to listen to vinyl through, er, rose-tinted earphones but it definitely sounded more alive than either CD edition that I have. (Yes, I own it three times now.) It remains one of my all-time favourite albums. For a while I thought I’d have to demote it because ‘Think Tank’ had made it into the top list too, but then realised that nobody gives a flying fuck what my all-time favourite albums are, and thus it could be a list consisting entirely of Blur and it wouldn’t matter.
And finally… The Chemical Brothers’ greatest hits record turned up from play.com today. At £2.99 it seemed rude not to. I enjoyed it much more than I expected to. I haven’t returned to the new one yet, despite intending to do so. Some of the vintage tunes are surprisingly fresh a decade on. ‘The Private Psychedelic Wheel’ sounds better now than it did back then. ‘The Golden Path’ is probably the best Flaming Lips song ever made, and they didn’t make it. Still £3, and well worth a punt.
P.S. Just finished watching ‘Grass’, the sitcom starring Billy Bleach, a bit-part character from The Fast Show, turned police informant. Bloody marvellous and yet no bugger knows about it. Full, gushing review in the revelations on Sunday.