BEST OF 2018: Part 2 – 20-11

It’s curious how Wilco have sort of become like the latter days of Woolworths. Something warm and familiar to which one dedicates time whenever convenient but hardly essential. Dependable and tied in with many memories, a source for shock and sadness in the event of end times. Hopefully, the former are some way from their 70% off everything days, but ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Schmilco’ are albums I have in my collection without really being able to hum a note from either. This is not true, however, of Number 20: ‘Warm’ by Jeff Tweedy. As well as publishing a fine memoir, ‘Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)’, he also delivered his finest solo effort to date and his strongest set of songs since 2011’s ‘The Whole Love’. There’s some country twang in there, ‘I Know What It’s Like’ and ‘Let’s Go Rain’, along with some plaintive croaking evoking memories of turn of the millennium Wilco, ‘Bombs Above’ and ‘How Will I Find You’. It’s an album that best suits being heard in one sitting and which bears repetition, but it’s a quiet beauty and one not to carelessly overlook under the assumption its contents are obvious.

Keen readers will have noted the absence of ‘Humanz’ from last year’s Best Of list, despite my unashamed love of all things Albarn. I didn’t get it. Still don’t. Some decent things there but it really isn’t an album. This was, perhaps, best highlighted by the ludicrous 14×12″ vinyl box set which paired each song with a bonus track, completely disrupting the flow of the record. Then came news that another album had been recorded around the same time and it had plenty of the key ingredient that had been so conspicuously absent from most of its predecessor – Damon vocals. Honestly, Number 19: ‘The Now Now’ by Gorillaz would make it into this list for ‘Souk Eye’ alone, the closing track with eighties dance stabs, a gradual ascent to an all out house crescendo that never comes and a nimble melody that I have returned to so very, very often this year. It’s easy to dismiss Albarn because of how much he puts out and the expectation that it will all be of a certain standard. And he doesn’t help himself with some of his media appearances but I think the Damon: Twat or Not Twat ship has long since sailed for anyone who cares. ‘Idaho’ is a shimmering delight, ‘Tranz’ is a flat out banger. ‘Humility’ has a tremendous, hiccuping beat and ‘Kansas’ has a light R&B strut to it. It may have been forgotten by many, but there is much to love here.

Some records defy adequate description. Some records absolutely do not suit every mood or every time of day. Some records are just obviously genius from the song titles onwards. ‘It Get Be So Swansea’ and ‘Dealing With Hoarders’ confirm that Number 18: ‘Now (In A Minute)’ by Audiobooks belongs in the third category and even a cursory listen should convince you of its credentials for the first two also. Art student and musician Evangeline Ling and wondrous producer David Wrench are an unusual pairing but it is alchemical from the off. These warped pop songs are joyously bizarre. ‘Hot Salt’, for example, is a track I like to imagine as a duet between Cassie and Sunny from ITV’s Unforgotten. Seriously, listen and see what I mean. It works, right? The aforementioned paean to the twenty-fifth largest city in the UK is a giggly, vocoder-driven mid-paced electro-pop corker and ‘Friends In The Bubble Bath’ rides high on glorious synth stabs. Just listen to it, buy it and thank me later.

Opening up like a vintage folk album and progressing with staggering attention to detail, Number 17: ‘Wanderer’ by Cat Power is a record upon which there is not a second wasted. Chan Marshall’s voice remains a visceral thrill and the largely sparse arrangements here give it the kind of platform that was missing from 2012’s variable ‘Sun‘. ‘In Your Face’ and ‘You Get’ are both twitching, percussive wonders while ‘Horizon’ is a delicate wash of shimmering sounds that is all over most of my compilations (or playlists, if we really must) from this year. A fabulously sincere cover of Rihanna’s ‘Stay’ is utterly at home in the centre of the record and the chiming piano of ‘Nothing Really Matters’ is almost hymnal. An album that already sounds like a classic.

When the promo email came through announcing a new Spiritualized album, I was impatient for the follow up dispatch with a download link. Thankfully, it wasn’t far behind and the music was, frankly, surprisingly great. I can’t have been the only one wondering if Jason Pierce had it in him to make another great album after the fits and starts of his output since the early Noughties. But Number 16: ‘And Nothing Hurt’ by Spiritualized put that worry to bed. Opening track ‘A Perfect Miracle’ was a sweeping, slow-building epic in the customary mould and it was like revisiting an old haunt and finding one of the few places that remains how you remember it. ‘I’m Your Man’ has a light swing to it while ‘Here It Goes (The Road) Let’s Go’ is a classic exercise in euphoric mantras and counterpoints that stirs the soul. Even the sax is acceptable on that. ‘On The Sunshine’ is a standard ‘everything at 70mph, into a strong wind, towards a blinding light’ cacophony and thoroughly delicious as a result. Lovely artwork too.

When I first drew up the end of year list, this album had just snuck in but its impact on me has been reignited in recent weeks thanks to a quite brilliant documentary film about the band responsible. Number 15: ‘The Blue Hour’ by Suede is a curious, unashamedly grand record and, in my review around its release, I described it as “unlikely to win Suede many new followers, but it should convince any fans of old that their vitality is restored and they are at the peak of their powers once more.” I’m not sure I can put it any better three months later, but I am adamant about its charms. ‘Life Is Golden’ is one of their very finest songs ever while ‘The Invisibles’ and ‘Flytipping’ are both majestically scored pieces that only improve with time. The aforementioned film, ‘The Insatiable Ones’, did such a fine job of traversing their career with honesty and excitement that it sent me crawling back over the entire catalogue. ‘The Blue Hour’ held up well in such company and it really does warrant some serious attention.

I wasn’t entirely sure about ‘International Blue’ at first. If 2010’s ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ was “one last shot at mass communication” (followed by two blisteringly different but equally brilliant album in ‘Rewind The Film’ and ‘Futurology’) then what the fuck was this glistening, radio-friendly pop jangle all about? It has since grown on me massively, helped considerably by witnessing it performed live in Cardiff back in May. The band were on fine form and Number 14: ‘Resistance Is Futile’ by Manic Street Preachers was a welcome return from one of my absolute favourite bands. ‘Liverpool Revisited’ is a crisp and brisk encapsulation of Nicky Wire’s love of Liverpudlians and their dignity while ‘In Eternity’ is up there with St. Vincent’s ‘New York’ on my list of excellent Bowie tributes. In my review of the record, I referred to ‘Dylan & Caitlin’, a beautifully realised pop duet featuring The Anchoress, as The Beautiful South Wales and I stand by it. They were open about aiming for a ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ feel with this track and it certainly paid off en route to this melodic triumph. ‘Broken Algorithms’ is a bit shit, but ‘Vivian’, ‘Hold Me Like A Heaven’ and ‘A Song For The Sadness’ are all prime Manics tracks and very welcome additions to the soundtrack of an obsession lasting well over twenty years now. I have been working up a piece on the ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’ reissue which will hopefully get finished fairly soon. I’ll bung it up here when it’s done.

I was originally down to review Number 13: ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ by Villagers and so spent much of the summer with this as one of a select number of albums providing a very welcome soundtrack. My transformative moment with Conor O’Brien’s work came with 2016’s ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ I had all of his albums and had enjoyed them, but something about hearing them stripped back for those new recordings at RAK studios with some tweaked arrangements and a different sequence elevated them to a place of rare beauty and I was thoroughly smitten. That experience appears to have had some bearing on this latest effort, continuing my love affair wholeheartedly through the fizzing, fidgeting rhythms of ‘Again’, meandering melody of ‘A Trick Of The Light’ and woozy warmth of ‘Love Came With All That It Brings’. It’s a very strong set of songs and one which confirms O’Brien as quite the talent. A real joy, from start to finish.

Back in 2015, Pete Paphides’ Soho Radio show introduced me to Daniel Knox and his self-titled solo album topped my Best Of list for that year. Number 12: ‘Chasescene’ by Daniel Knox is the follow up and would likely be higher up this countdown, had it not been released at the start of this month. Irrespective of bizarre record company schedules, this is another stunning collection of songs which have little regard for genre and serve as a tremendous platform for Knox’s involving baritone. In my review for Clash, I described him as a “truly compelling presence” and picked out ‘Capitol’, with guest vocals from Jarvis Cocker, and ‘Me And My Wife’ for particular attention. The former is a curious bit of cabaret and Jarv’s delivery of “you’re nothing to me” is one of my musical highlights of 2018. The latter is “a dark narrative played straight and with a swelling conclusion that deposits ‘Chasescene’ on a locked groove.” Get me, quoting myself. Anyway, the quality does not relent and don’t let the preposterous timing of its entry into the world allow you to be deprived of its charms.

Back at the start of the year, I’d forgotten when the MOT was due and had ended up with a last minute change of plan for a ‘while you wait’ booking to avoid being illegal. Just as I was due to head out for that endeavour, the promo of Number 11: ‘Everything Is Recorded by Richard Russell’ by Everything Is Recorded landed in my inbox for review. And so, this musical box of tricks is forever entwined with a freezing but bright January afternoon, blaring in my ears as I mooched around Bath killing time. I’d already loved the early singles and the full set did not disappoint. Overseen by XL main man Richard Russell, the production style did not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his work, especially Damon Albarn’s ‘Everyday Robots’, but the array of talent on show was remarkable. ‘Wet Looking Road’ features Giggs, while Kamasi Washington is on ‘She Said’ and ‘Mountains Of Gold’. Ibeyi do a fine job of covering Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s ‘Cane’ and Sampha is imperious on the Curtis Mayfield-sampling ‘Close But Not Quite’. As an early pace-setter, it would be easy to forget this album when doing the end of year reckoning but for the sheer quality of its ensemble cast.

In the final post, I’ll count down my top ten from 2018.

20. Jeff Tweedy – Warm (Listen)

19. Gorillaz – The Now Now (Listen)

18. Audiobooks – Now (In A Minute) (Listen)

17. Cat Power – Wanderer (Listen)

16. Spiritualized – And Nothing Hurt (Listen)

15. Suede – The Blue Hour (Listen)

14. Manic Street Preachers – Resistance Is Futile (Listen)

13. Villagers – The Art Of Pretending To Swim (Listen)

12. Daniel Knox – Chasescene (Listen)

11. Everything Is Recorded – Everything Is Recorded by Richard Russell (Listen)

BEST OF 2014: 3. Manic Street Preachers – Futurology

I’m occasionaly  accused of blindly praising albums by the Manics due to my enduring enjoyment of their work. I appreciate that I do tend to be positive about them more often that not, however, arguably, they’ve not released a disappointing record since the rather filmsy ‘Send Away The Tigers’. There are those who’ll tell you that ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ didn’t quite work, but I’ll gladly argue with such individuals until they see sense. Or admit weary defeat, at the very least. Add in the fact that I’m often pitched against an editor who hates them – despite adoring all dadrock and being one of only four people willing to openly admit to having been a Beady Eye fan – and I can end up feeling rather defensive when it comes to this truly remarkable band. I’ve written before about their significance to me, but I have been a borderline obsessive fan for the last eighteen years. I have grown up with them and was genuinely staggered when I read the other day that, were Richey still with us, his recent birthday would have made him 47. From the bluster of 1992’s overlong, over-ambitious glorious failure ‘Generation Terrorists’, through the unstinting glory of ‘The Holy Bible’, past the elegiac beauty of ‘Everything Must Go’ and on through the fear of being left-behind that prompted ‘Lifeblood’, the Manics have never really been dull. They are a quite remarkably brilliant live band and rarely to be found hunched over a rhyming dictionary bashing out lyrics. They are flawed, they are achingly human and they are mine. But, with ‘Futurology’, they may just have stirred something in people who’d long since stopped caring or even never cared at all. And there’s a reason for that.

3 MSP

With the autumn 2013 release of ‘Rewind The Film’ came the news that a second album was already in the can and that its Krautrock leanings would offer a very different version of the band to that found on its immediate predecessor. The announcement did the the first release no favours, with many twitching expectantly for the bombast and riffing promised elsewhere. It was a shame as the album offered a different, yearningly melancholic take on the band’s sound. That said, final track ‘30-Year War’, with its moments of gnarled vitriol directed at the class divide in politics, was touted as a bridge between the two sets and so, to a point, it proved.

As ‘Futurology’ was gently pushed back and back until its release was confirmed for early July, the anticipation continued to build. Whatever was to come had its work cut out before anybody had even heard a note. The spring tour which, one suspects, was initially booked to launch the second album but, due to delays, became a rather more balanced affair, offered up live performances of ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’ and the title track. I can remember beaming like an idiot in the middle of the CIA one Saturday night as a roaring take on the former demonstrated just how great this new record could be. Thankfully, despite having previously found the marrying of talking the talk and walking the walk a little uncomfortable, the Manics had truly done it. In many ways, ‘Futurology’ is close to being their definitive album. Now, I say this with a due note of caution, because it’s hard to envisage anything surpassing ‘The Holy Bible’, but put its mythology aside and remember that plenty of people find it pretty much inaccessible and you might just then be able to make a case for this being right up there. It has a little of the gristle and throb of that masterpiece, the sensational guitar playing of James Dean Bradfield plastered all over it and a neat array of styles and collaborators. ‘Walk Me To The Bridge’ is endearingly simplistic in its reliance on an enormous riff, but it only takes a few listens to become a monstrous earworm. ‘Between The Clock And The Bed’, however, is hugely different, with its glacially poised Eighties pop wash making for a hypnotic cocktail in combination with guest vocals from Green Gartside. The band themselves made reference to Prefab Sprout in the accompanying press notes and they were on the money.

I adore ‘Sex, Power, Love and Money’, which seemed to split opinion a little. It’s huge, bold and stupid. It has a Big Audio Dynamite thing going on, mixed with what I described at the time as an update of the Pet Shop Boys‘ ‘Paninaro’ for the 21st century post-financial collapse society. I have my reasons – listen to Nicky’s Chris Lowe-esque bridge of ‘Obsession – Possession – Confession – Recession’ and tell me it doesn’t stir some PSB memories. It’s like ‘Generation Terrorists’ era Manics with an extra twenty odd years of technical proficiency thrown in. Turn it up very loud and leap about a bit. You’ll love it. The same formula applies to the aforementioned ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’ which bursts menacingly out of the speakers, possesses a gloriously demonic guest vocal by Nina Hoss and features the best use of a cowbell in modern music in many a year. The band likened it to prime glam Goldfrapp and it’s the sort of song that, were we to still have smash hit, multi-formatted singles, would have been a smash hit multi-formatted single.

Add in the glorious thunder of ‘Let’s Go To War’ and the Motorik rhythms of ‘The Next Jet To Leave Moscow’, plus a stunning performance from the artist responsible for 2013’s Just Played Album of the Year, Georgia Ruth, on ‘Divine Youth’ and you’ve already got a very special record. Two instrumental pieces serve to be much more than mere filler, ‘Dreaming A City (Hugheskova)’ evokes notions of a 21st century bombastic evolution of ‘Low’, while ‘Mayakovsky’ is a gloriously tangled web of claustrophobic rhythms.

In short – which I’ve singularly failed to achieve thus far – ‘Futurology’ is the Manics album that even people who aren’t Manics fans like. Except my editor, of course. More fool him.

BEST OF 2013: 13. Manic Street Preachers – Rewind The Film

If ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ was ‘one last shot at mass communication’ then this, presumably, was the start of the band simply doing what they want. With talk turning to 2014’s ‘Futurology’, described recently by Nicky Wire as “POSTPUNKDISCOROCK”, it’s worth pausing to take in the quiet majesty of the first of two albums to arrive in quick succession. Regular readers will not be surprised by the band’s presence in this countdown, but it’s worth saying that having followed the band for over seventeen years makes the initial listens to any new music close to excruciating. The promo for ‘Rewind The Film’ arrived just before a weekend of long drives and uncomfortable hotels at a friend’s wedding and so fairly substantial exposure to these songs was granted in a short space of time. The first few plays were fine, if unremarkable. This is not an album of guitar solos or snarling vocal performances – ’30 Year War’ aside. This record has many moments of beauty which, as any fool knows, do not tend to translate well through car stereos. In fact, the breakthrough came later that weekend, whilst wedged into a bed in a gypsy caravan designed for Oompa Loompas. As the warm air of a summer’s night drifted through the window, the album seeped in through headphones and I was sold.

That the title track, featuring a lead vocal from the ever-charming Richard Hawley, was the first thing anyone heard from this record gives some sense of how the band weren’t playing the game this time. It’s a luscious sweep of melancholia, nudged towards brilliance by the late arrival of James Dean Bradfield for a surging chorus. Another of the album’s highlights also features lead vocals from a guest performer; this time it’s Cate Le Bon on ‘Four Lonely Roads’, which marches along swooningly, Le Bon’s voice floating over the backdrop before melding with Wire in the bridge. It’s a wonderfully understated tune and very un-Manics in its nature.

This delicate touch is felt elsewhere too, with ‘Builder Of Routines’ having a brass break which bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘God Only Knows’. This can, of course, only be a good thing and so it proves. Although the verses seem a little cluttered, the sonic palette of ‘(I Miss The) Tokyo Skyline’ is rich and warm, glistening electronica burbling away to good effect. ‘Show Me The Wonder’ and ‘Anthem For A Lost Cause’ tick the singles box rather neatly, with sweeping choruses and a good dollop of parping brass where once might have been emotive strings. Wire takes the vocals for ‘As Holy As The Soil (That Buries Your Skin)’ and is in fine form as he tackles his fond reminiscences of Richey Edwards. ‘Running Out Of Fantasy’ sounds like the loss of hope put to delicately plucked guitar, while ‘Manorbier’ is an instrumental piece which betrays the band’s increasing fondness for modern classical and ambient electronic music. It’s surprisingly well executed, even if it is somewhat overshadowed by the album’s final punch: ’30 Year War’. Described by Wire as a bridging song between this album and ‘Futurology’, it’s a dazzlingly brutal assault on the government and its shortcomings. It’s the sort of lyric you expect from this band, but you have to hear it to realise just how well they can speak for our times. While its successor may end up garnering all the headlines, ‘Rewind The Film’ quietly goes about its business and may well be perfectly positioned to play the long game. Their recent sizzling live form perhaps best highlights how at ease with themselves the Manics are feeling right now and, on this evidence, who can blame them?

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

Classic Album: Manic Street Preachers ‘Everything Must Go’

Having released the bleakest record of their career, and quite possibly of the entire decade, with 1994’s ‘The Holy Bible’, the Manics were reaching critical mass and it seemed something had to give. Chief tunesmith James Dean Bradfield was becoming worried that he wouldn’t be able to fit the increasingly polemical lyrics of Richey Edwards, permanent icon and sometime guitar player, to workable melodies. After poor sales of their bold third album, the band feared they might be dropped and, in February 1995, an American tour was looming on the horizon when Edwards disappeared.

Manics EMG

After several months of uncertainty, the band vowed to go on. Convening for a nervous get-together in a Cardiff studio, they attempted a run-through of a song called ‘A Design For Life’, assimilated from two different lyrics Nicky Wire had provided Bradfield with in the months after Edwards’ disappearance. Realising that they had something special on their hands, the Manics attempted to record, with Stephen Hague in the producer’s chair, but found the results to be mixed. Opting instead for Siouxsie and Associates producer Mike Hedges, revered at the time for his stellar work on McAlmont & Butler’s ‘Yes’, the band decamped to a French Chateau and got to work. Described by Bradfield as “the most idyllic experience the band has ever had,” the results were to reverse their commercial decline and redefine how the band was viewed.

Continue reading “Classic Album: Manic Street Preachers ‘Everything Must Go’”

5. Manic Street Preachers–Postcards From A Young Man

Best of 2010I was more than a little chuffed to be given ‘Postcards’ to review for Clash Magazine. As a Manics fanboy of some standing, whose obsession can be traced back to my early teens, I was curious to hear what “one last shot as mass communication” would actually sound like. I was delighted and, judging by the overwhelming positive critical reaction the album received, so were many other people. The Manics at their most polished, ‘Postcards’ paved the way for unlikely appearances on Something For The Weekend and Strictly Come Dancing, as well being piped through my local Co-op only this morning. This is deliriously outlandish pop which has soundtracked the second half of the year for me.

manics_pfaym_cover

That Clash review also brought about a couple of special moments for me. Firstly, this appeared on Twitter…

MSP Twitter

and then, in an interview with BBC Wales, Nicky had this to say:

Clash magazine gave us a great review the other day, and there’s no need for them to. They’re a young, glossy, cool magazine, but their review was really brilliant.

What a nice chap! Both were happy coincidences arising out of them releasing an absolutely marvellous late period album and proving that they still had the old fire in them. Having spent far too long talking about me, here is that original review once again:

Leave your prejudices at the door and open up your ears. After the militant basslines and scorching vocals of ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, the Manics are going for your heart. Talked up as one last shot at “mass communication,” this is an unashamedly pop record and its chutzpah is staggering. Gospel choirs, soaring strings and choruses you could use as landmarks in a blizzard make for an astonishing listen.

The joyous bombast of first single ‘(It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love’ never diminishes, similar to much of what follows, and it heralds a shift in approach from the band. The album could be subtitled ‘Happy Songs About Serious Stuff’, so frequently are complex lyrics presented alongside glorious pop hooks. Take ‘Hazelton Avenue’, which couples an admission that consumerism can make you happy with a riff which could hold its own in a battle with ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. Then there’s ‘Golden Platitudes’, reflecting on the disappointments of New Labour set against delicate strings and swooning backing vocals before giving way to an outrageous ‘la-la-la-la-la-la’ middle eight. It’s majestic.

Classic ‘Everything Must Go’ rock has its place too, with ‘A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun’ and ‘All We Make Is Entertainment’ both evoking that era. If ‘Journal…’ marked a return to the dark brilliance of ‘The Holy Bible’ then ‘Postcards…’ nods to the stadium-sized splendour of their fourth album. The additional confidence that comes with releasing your tenth album has allowed these meticulous students of pop to ditch the shackles and just go for it. Most remarkable of all tracks is the duet with Ian McCulloch, ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’, a slinking soulful number with both James and Mac in masterful form. It is unlike anything either men have done before and utterly beautiful.

There will be plenty of people who opt to be snobby about the fact that this record is so commercial, so polished and so brazen but those people are all, to a man, idiots. If you can’t love these songs, you are incapable of experiencing joy itself.

I Think I Found It. Again.

Nicky Wire really believes in his band. His passion is obvious, his fervour frequently unconstrained and his spelling frankly atrocious. He still writes messily spontaneous manifestos for each record, as if twenty years haven’t passed. He takes wilful potshots at the famous and revered and stands as tall as his knackered knees will allow as he proclaims his songs “so good every radio station will have to play them.” It is, unquestionably, all genuine. It’s often quite obvious that Nicky Wire is a massive fan of the Manic Street Preachers. Camcorder footage from the recording of ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ preserves last winter’s snow as it fell around Faster Studios in Cardiff, soundtracked by Wire clumsily, feebly but – crucially – enthusiastically singing an early incarnation of ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’. Featuring a guest vocal from Ian McCulloch alongside James Dean Bradfield’s formidable pipes, it is one of the most magical moments on ‘Postcards’ and surely ranks amongst the best Manics songs to date. It embodies all of the pop swagger Nicky dreamt of when plotting this latest bid for recognition. Notes such as ‘Queen plating ABBA’ and ‘strings to break your heart’ make it quite clear that this is an album which is unashamedly commercial, unashamedly polished and unashamedly huge.

Nicky Scrap

Some Kind Of Nothingness’ is a beautiful meeting of minds, melodies and voices played out across an epic soundscape, bolstered by swooning strings and a gospel choir which stays just the right side of cheesy. It is perfect pop music and it’s something which the band couldn’t have done ten or even five years ago. It is the ultimate manifestation of a band truly at ease with itself. The spectre of ‘The Holy Bible’ hung over them for years; a long time fan favourite but a totem of trickier times, it was a far cry from the tinny sheen of ‘So Why So Sad’ and the cascading piano of ‘I Live To Fall Asleep’. ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ offered more in that vein and brought the spellbinding lyrics of Richey Edwards to a new audience along with the exorcising of a few musical demons along the way. It cleared the decks and firmly flung all baggage overboard. The confidence borne of the realisation that there’s no longer anything to prove doesn’t always lead to positive results, but on this occasion all is well. As the choir swells behind Mac bellowing ‘never stop, never stop, never stop, never’ prior to the final chorus of ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’ the shameless pursuit of pristine pop is realised and the smartest gamble the band have taken in a while pays off in style. Though this song, and the album as a whole, will rub some people up the wrong way as a result of its fearless ambition, it has prompted a rebirth which had seemed so unlikely. ‘Postcards’, like ‘Everything Must Go’ before it, stirs something in me, triggers a casual euphoria and a day without it seems so very, very wrong.