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

Aren’t Waterstone’s points great?

Where to start? Having spent a week trolling around the South East of England, I have returned with copious new records and a sizeable pile of books. The Great British Holiday – bugger all use if you’re after a tan but pretty reliable for enhancing your CD collection. I’ll start where it ended, which was the purchase of Simon Goddard‘s hugely enjoyable masterwork on Morrissey, entitled ‘Mozipedia‘. Priced at £25, but easily found online for £14.99 delivered, it’s a gargantuan study of all things Moz, with entries for every song he’s been involved with, both as a solo artist and as a member of The Smiths. There are also numerous cultural entries to offer a fuller picture, something Goddard is keen to emphasise in his introduction, imploring readers to draw their own conclusions about Morrissey by piecing together whichever entries seem appropriate. The carefully ambiguous, not to mention beautifully written, overview of Moz with which Goddard opens proceedings does the required job of stirring up a passion for the man and his music and ensuring that the ensuing six hundred or so pages are a delight to dip into on numerous occasions. Highly recommended.*

Speaking of Morrissey, the infamous 1992 NME vs Moz race row was brought back to the public domain this week as a result of some pretty heated debate on the really rather splendid Andrew Collins‘ site. It all came about due to some chronically mediocre reporting in The Guardian about offensive comedians which took as its centrepiece Richard Herring‘s new show, ‘Hitler Moustache’. Whatever your take on the imagery used to promote the show, or indeed some of the material contained within, it would surely be difficult to conclude that Herring is anything even bordering on racist. You’d think. Not if you’re Brian Logan, critic for said newspaper, who had a pretty good go at trying to paint him as a racist, or at least somebody with a great deal of sympathy for racists. Andrew Collins, with whom Herring records an often mildly amusing podcast each week, naturally opted to defend his comedy chum via his blog. As part of the ensuing debate in the comments section, a couple of readers drew parallels with Andrew’s involvement in the NME cover story about Moz, Madstock and the Union Flag (Covered in detail in the aforementioned ‘Mozipedia’. ) This, in turn, led to Andrew posting an additional article on his blog in which he attempted clarify why the two events had little in common. This appears to have simply stirred up emotions further and it has since been removed. Instead, Andrew opted to wade in on a related discussion on the Morrissey Solo Forums, where he encountered both ends of the scale: the intelligent, articulate and thoroughly knowledgeable Moz fans and those for whom Mozipedia will function as little more than a door stop. Still, all very entertaining reading and worth an hour of your time, if you’re willing.

In other internet confusion this week, Live Here Now, the company responsible for doing immediate live recordings at gigs continued to show why they’re not really deserving of anybody’s money. A quick pootle round the web will reveal exactly how many times they’ve delayed issuing recordings well beyond the date stated in the past and so it has proved with Blur’s Hyde Park gigs. I’ve had a negative experience with this lot in the past also, opting for Richard Hawley‘s ‘Live At The Devil’s Arse’ concert CD, which arrived many weeks after the stated date. The Blur gigs were to be available for download a week after they had happened and the CDs would follow a week later. Now, even when I ordered, I was pretty certain that this wouldn’t be the case and simply sat back and waited for them to be crap. They didn’t disappoint. If you ordered the CDs, you were promised the downloads for free, as part of the deal. Those downloads were finally available this Wednesday, July 29th. As I’m sure you can spot, this is not a week after July 2nd and 3rd. Still, at least the downloads were here and grumbling can cease, eh? Well, no, actually. When the shop site first went live, it offered the recordings as CDs or ‘High Quality 320kbps’ mp3s. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, those buying the CDs would also receive the downloads free of charge. However, upon making the downloads available to those who had preordered this week, it became clear that the downloads were only 160kbps mp3s, hardly sufficient quality for a product that is being offered up professionally in 2009. As you might expect, numerous Blur fans opted to complain about this poorly encoded product and were offered the following explanation: “We do apologise for the wording of the download quality on the website and are sorry if this has caused confusion, however as per our help section as linked below the bundled/CD purchases of the shows will have received the 160kbps version of the download.” Fair enough. Except it’s not. This information was only added to the site in the last week or so and thus it is not an excuse for why the downloads are substandard. A quick search of Google, using the cache option, yesterday unveiled the original version of the help page, which simply referred to 320kbps mp3s. Frankly, if you’re going to be utter shit, be utter shit, but to then lie about it and twist the facts is pretty bloody pathetic. I’ll be glad to finally get my CDs whenever they actually emerge, but I won’t be using this bunch of unreliable, untrustworthy cretins again.

Having mentioned the acquisition of numerous records above, I feel like I should offer some additional comment, but there’s far too much to talk about in one go. Suffice to say, a wonderful time was had in Brighton, particularly in Resident Records – as good a record shop as I’ve been in since my beloved Reveal Records died some 18 months or so ago – but not to take anything away from Rounder, Wax Factor or Ape. A special mention the glorious, and rather charmingly named, The Record Shop in Amersham, at which I stopped en route, where I had an enjoyable compilation about Honest Jon’s compilations as I purchased ‘Marvellous Boy – Calypso From West Africa’ and reduced copies of two of the ‘London Is The Place For Me’ series. Something I don’t think I’m ever likely to get in my local branch of HMV. The inevitable trip to London was conducted and Rough Trade East did its best to lure me in many musical directions, with not inconsiderable success. Berwick Street was rather disappointing, with only Sounds Of The Universe (just off Berwick Street on Broadwick Street) tempting me to open my wallet. Still, plenty of good stuff was found and will be mentioned on here as I get my ears around it over the next few days. Weirdly, the album of the holiday was Maps‘ new one, ‘Turning The Mind’, which won’t be released until September 28th, but which I spent plenty of time with in order to write a review in the next day or two. It really is as good as you might have hoped. I’ll endeavour to say a bit more soon.

Finally, keep an eye on the ‘Special Purchase’ section in your nearest HMV for the next week or two, as some decent stuff has started to appear of late. The Portsmouth branch provided me with four of the ‘Talcum Soul’ series at £2 each, while the Southampton store had the best bargain, with a copy of Lewis Taylor‘s beautiful ‘The Lost Album’ also priced at only £2. Have a listen to that rather wonderful record here.

When rock stars grow old

One of the many splendours of Sky + is the way in which it invites you to record even the most minimal and insignificant fluff, just because it’s no effort at all. For me, the clearest example of this is the Channel 4 tendency to show exclusive first plays of new music videos at some time around midnight. Can I be arsed making sure I’m watching the telly for that precise five minute window? No. But give me the chance to press a button, forget all about it and then come back to it another time, and I’m in!

Last night, Channel 4 played out the new video from Morrissey, for ”I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris‘. This morning, feeling a bit fluey and equipped with a strong cup of tea and some Nurofen, I settled down to flick through the telly. As I watched this particular video, I could only think of one thing. Doesn’t Morrissey look old? Let’s be absolutely fair to the chap – he is actually getting on a bit. It’s not like he looked 25 last week and now he looks like he’s smoked Amy Winehouse, but he just seems to actually be looking his age or even a little older.

It’s no great surprise, people get older after all, but my first proper exposure to Moz was his Nineties Britpop incarnation and he was still rather spritely then. Even his most recent albums were supported by performances that suggested a man full of energy, passion and natural charm.

Watch this and see if any of that is still there now:

See? I’m not imagining it, am I? Now, I should confess that the reason why I’m so struck by his aging appearance is entirely selfish. I can’t help thinking that time must have seriously moved along if ‘my’ generation of indie legends are starting to look a little rough around the edges. Noel‘s greying, Supergrass have the sideburns of a randy farmer who, in times of loneliness, has been eyeing up the goats and Moz looks like he’s been cryogenically frozen and is now being operated by strings. I’m getting ever nearer to dropping out of the traditional ‘new music’ demographic and it feels odd. Of course, there are self-imposed boundaries that don’t exist in the real world, but it still feels a bit strange to look at the figureheads of my youth and find them appearing more than a little lived in. Still, doing an impression of a Weeble trying to seduce a small dog is nothing compared to this silly old tart.

As for the song, it’s quite good actually. It’s Morrissey-by-numbers, but after ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’, which was about as much fun as an aneurysm, I’ll happily take that. After all, that’s what made us all like ‘You Are The Quarry’ so much, wasn’t it?

***

As this blog is actually called Vinyl Junkies, I should take this moment to point you in the direction of your nearest Zavvi. They’re currently flogging all of their vinyl at half price. Provided your local shop had a reasonable range prior to their administration issues, they should have plenty for you to pick up at rather splendid prices. Ok, they’re not exactly giving them away, but anyone used to buying plenty of vinyl is used to fairly robust pricing, so getting it at half price is quite a big deal. I’m quite happy to tell you this as I’ve already cleared out the two stores nearest to me! Get there while you can.

This is, of course, the precursor to a potential repeat of the recent insanity found in Woolworths stores, as stock was cleared prior to closure. Nobody’s saying anything about how secure Zavvi’s future is right now, but it’s hard to imagine any single buyer coming in and keeping the chain as it is now. While I picked up a fair old number of CDs and DVDs in the Woolies clearout, it was a rather depressing affair. Plenty has been said in the media about the demise of this much-loved chain, but anyone who loves music has their own precise memories of the Woolworths music section and it still seems odd that it’s not there now. I was in one store a few hours before it closed and it was very odd. Imagine that Britain is at war, everything – even pick’n’mix and large plastic replicas of minor characters from Doctor Who – has been rationed. Sprinkle in some paranoia and desperation and that’s a little bit like how it felt. Still, cheap CDs, eh?

***

And finally, it’s been such a long time since I posted here that I never did anything about albums of the year for 2008, so I’m just going to re-post the list that I submitted to the end-of-year lists on the various music sites I frequent.

1. Elbow – ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’
2. Laura Marling – ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’
3. Tindersticks – ‘The Hungry Saw’
4. Joan As Police Woman – ‘To Survive’
5. Pete Molinari – ‘A Virtual Landslide’
6. Bon Iver – ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’
7. Portishead – ‘Third’
8. Malcolm Middleton – ‘Sleight Of Heart’
9. She & Him – ‘Volume 1’
10. Paul Weller – ’22 Dreams’
11. Our Broken Garden – ‘When Your Blackening Shows’
12. Helios – ‘Caesura’
13. James Yorkston – ‘When The Haar Rolls In’
14. The Last Shadow Puppets – ‘The Age Of Understatement’
15. Jamie Lidell – ‘Jim’
16. Fleet Foxes – ‘Fleet Foxes’
17. Elvis Costello & The Imposters – ‘Momofuku’
18. Calexico – ‘Carried To Dust’
19. Glow – ‘I, Yeah!’
20. Ladyhawke – ‘Ladyhawke’

Honourable mentions to: Beck, Nick Cave, Jenny Lewis, The Dears, R.E.M., Max Richter, and Ray LaMontagne

Even looking at it now, I’m fairly certain I’d shuffle a few of them round, but it’s a moment in time and nobody really cares anyway, so that’ll do. Feel free to post your own via the comments section, should you be that way inclined.

You’re The One For Me Fatty

Last week’s NME carried a rather spurious story about Morrissey resigning from the world of music. Some of his US tour dates were cancelled through illness, and suddenly the end is nigh. However, the old chap doesn’t seem quite himself. A couple of weeks back he performed a new song, ‘That’s How People Grow Up’, on the David Letterman show and didn’t really seem like he was all that bothered. I know they say the camera adds two pounds, but exactly how many cameras were pointed at him?
Anyway, here’s the new song, and long may he continue.

He bears more grudges than lonely high-court judges…

Ah, good old Moz. As I mentioned in a previous entry, I’m on a bit of a Smiths/Morrissey kick at the moment. I’m currently reading bits of Johnny Rogan‘s ‘Morrissey – The Albums’ and Simon Goddard‘s ‘Songs That Saved Your Life‘, both of which break the analysis down to individual songs, although the first of the two also deals with the solo releases of our man. They’re both engaging books, and while the hardcore fans seem to hate Rogan with a passion, his comments on the solo stuff have spurred me on to go back and listen to ignored, and critically unpopular, albums like ‘Southpaw Grammar‘ and ‘Maladjusted‘. While I may not agree with everything he has to say about the songs, it’s given me a chance to listen to them in a fresh light.
What I’ve particularly enjoyed about the experience is noticing just how splendid Morrissey‘s voice can be. It’s unique, it’s distinctive and occasionally compared to a malfunctioning foghorn, but at times it can floor you. ‘Vauxhall & I‘ is getting played a lot at the moment, and it only serves to point out how bizarre it was for the Britpop scene not to hold their natural royalty aloft. Weller was the appointed guv’nor of Britpop, but Moz was certainly deserving of a similarly elevated position.
Anyway, a more critical approach to the man and his tunes will appear here once I’ve got my thoughts in order, but I thought it was worth posting this so that anyone who might class themselves as a regular reader can do some homework and then may even join in via the comments option. T’would be splendid to hear from you.
Here’s ‘The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get‘, from ‘Vauxhall & I

Till next time.

Ooooh…a card sleeve!

Walked in this evening to find the deluxe edition of the Wilco album on the floor. I hadn’t thrown it there, nor had it crept in during the day and arranged a provocative pose for itself – it had simply come through the door from an online shop. My initial quibble is with the phrase ‘Deluxe Edition‘. It has a card sleeve – like all Wilco albums on Nonesuch – and the booklet and discs come in a normal jewel case. The only ‘deluxe‘ thing about it is the bonus DVD. But then surely you just say ‘Bonus DVD‘ on the packaging. If it’s deluxe I expect it to be in a ridiculous book that doesn’t fit on the shelf or in a digipack made of old egg boxes – not a bloody jewel case. If anything this is a sensible edition – with a bonus DVD. It’s a minor gripe because the DVD is great. For a start the audio is LPCM 48/16 rather than Dolby Digital. If that means bugger all to you, all I’m saying is that the audio is excellent quality. The interview with Jeff Tweedy is nicely chopped around some live performances. He comes across as a decent enough chap who just wanted to make a good record. Thankfully he succeeded.
I feel obliged to point out that all of the naysayers that have been calling this album average are talking out of their, no doubt perfectly formed, fundaments. It’s a cracker of an album and one which has rarely been away from my cd player for the last few months. It’s certainly gentle, and less spiky than the last couple of albums but the songwriting is meticulous and the tunes gradually ensnare you until you keep wanting to go back and hear them again. So, in closing, it’s great. Just not deluxe, like.

The Manics managed a No.2 album with ‘Send Away The Tigers’, I notice. It’s great compared to the absolute stillborn release of ‘Lifeblood’, but I read with interest that it got there with sales of 38, 697 – only 700 or so copies behind the number one album from the Arctic Monkeys. ‘Lifeblood’ sold 23,000, or thereabouts, in its first week, missed the top ten and was never seen again. I have to confess to being slightly surprised by their resurgence – not because the music’s shite, simply that I never thought they’d be ‘cool’ again. I’ll be seeing them on the current tour and will feedback accordingly.

The Moz singles boxset for the years 91-95 was also on the doormat this evening as I’m on a bit of a Smiths/Moz kick at the moment. Currently digesting two books on his music and will attempt to form my thoughts, feelings and interpretations of his work into something here fairly soon. It’s pretty, by the way. I’m a sucker for these things.

Here’s a track from the spiffing Wilco record, entitled ‘What Light‘.

More soon.