BEST OF 2013: 17. Paul McCartney – New

If you’d been sat next to me as I came to the end of my first listen to ‘Memory Almost Full’ and told me that Paul McCartney‘s next conventional studio album would be pretty high up my end of year list, I’d have laughed in your face. And asked why you were in my living room. The ludicrously twee sound of much of that record felt like a light going out. Here was a truly legendary artist wilfully and churlishly turning his back on the sound of the genuinely brilliant ‘Chaos & Creation In The Backyard’ because its producer wasn’t quite as deferential in the studio as other producers. It seemed that McCartney was happy to see out his career putting out hum-drum pleasantries safe in the knowledge that there were plenty of people who’ll buy anything with his name on it. By the time he was mugging his way through ‘Hey Jude’ at the Olympics, the game seemed almost up.

And yet, here we are. ‘Kisses On The Bottom’ was the first sign that he was still capable of being unpredictable, heartfelt swing covers sitting alongside the truly beautiful ‘My Valentine’. The lead single and title track initially had me fearing that ‘Memory Almost Full’ had been all too memorable in these sessions, but early listens were curiously reassuring. Several months on from the arrival of ‘New’ and I think I’m still liking it more each time I hear it. And I’m playing it a lot.

‘Save Us’ clatters in and out in under three minutes, with a nagging chorus, a great hook and decent production, a job shared by four people across this album. Paul Epworth takes charge for this powerful opener, recent single and chronic earworm ‘Queenie Eye’ and album closer proper ‘Road’ which barrels out in much the same fashion as ‘Save Us’ rumbled in. Mark Ronson oversees the fabulously slinky ‘Alligator’ and the really-actually-quite-lovely-once-get-to-know-it title track. Ethan Johns‘ production only makes the cut twice, but both ‘Hosanna’ and the charmingly fragile ‘Early Days’ are firm favourites. Giles Martin continues the family trade to predictably sound effect, with six credits to his name. ‘Everybody Out There’ is a corking mid-album pop-rocker, with a cascading melody and simple but affecting lyrics like “There, but for the Grace of God go you and I, do some good before you say goodbye.” But there are many such catchy tunes scattered all the way across ‘New’ and it wasn’t long before I found myself regularly reaching for these songs. It has been almost unshiftable from the car CD player.

It might require a slight deactivation of your cynical filter, but it’s a quite sincerely joyous listen. At the risk of criminal understatement, it’s perhaps best articulated by considering a good old plate of beans on toast. You can have your fancy meals, your adventurous combinations, your first tastes of exotic flavours, but often you have to settle for something practical. And damn it if that most simple of meals doesn’t feel pretty much perfect as it’s going down. Sometimes, all it takes is exposure to a tried and tested old favourite to realise just how great it can be.

BEST OF 2012: Dusted Off

What a year for reissues it has been, with several labels delivering an almost impolite run of quality and some bands getting the deluxe treatment. Paul McCartney‘s archive series continued with the staggeringly lovely ‘Ram’ boxset, with a genuinely interesting book, delicately reproduced photos and the album in stereo, mono and lounge jazz versions. It’s one of Macca’s finest and the box is something to cherish. A staggered release was awarded to Can‘s ‘The Lost Tapes‘, initially appearing as CD only and then as a far more expensive vinyl box ‘due to overwhelming demand’. Which, of course, they couldn’t have predicted. Nope. Making vinyl fans but twice was simply a quirk of fate. Honest. Luckily, the music is largely fantastic and this is not some excuse to peddle muffled, mono cassette recordings of crap demos. It might even prove quite a useful starting point for the uninitiated.

Elbow and Blur had their entire studio album catalogue popped back out on heavyweight vinyl this year, including a superb box for the former which had every album beautifully mastered on 2x45rpm vinyl. I believe it’s already becoming scarce. Don’t miss it. As for Blur, the vinyl mastering was largely great, but it was the ‘21‘ twenty one disc box which truly excited. Bonus tracks, b sides, rare footage and a gorgeous book made it one of my out and out highlights of the year. However, if you’re a Blur fan, you won’t need telling and if you’re not, I imagine 21 discs of them would feel like punching yourself in the face with a sharpened tent peg. Also, getting the vinyl treatment was the entire Beatles catalogue. There are those banging on about sources but, to these ears, they sound great. Bass is warm, voices are clear and drums are crisp. However, a word of caution. Quality control on the US vinyl is apparently significantly poorer than on the UK pressings, so purchase wisely.

One of the great pleasures of being a vinyl purchaser in 2012 was being on the receiving end of some of the most lovingly crafted, beautifully packaged and expertly researched reissues music fans have ever witnessed. Chief amongst the labels delivering such beauties are Light In The Attic. Having already delivered several essential Lee Hazlewood titles, the curious folky-funk of Donnie and Joe Emerson, a second Michael Chapman reissue, a stunning Wendy Rene overview, a double white vinyl set for the‘Searching For Sugarman’ soundtrack, a glorious Stax 7″ box set and the truly outstanding ‘Country Funk’compilation, the latest gem out of the pressing plants is ‘A Fire Somewhere’ by Ray Stinnett. Having sat, shelved and unreleased, for forty-two years, this is less a reissue and more an old new release.

Blessed with a country twang and a sprinkling of languid psych jams, this album is one likely to appeal to fans of everyone from Big Star through to Leonard Cohen. It has that timeless sound that LITA aficionados will by now be used to, sounding like a record you’ve always known by the time it gets its second spin, managing to tick the singer/songwriter box en route to some cosmic jams and pensive guitar licks. Stinnett’s vocals – a less wilfully obtuse Tim Buckley at times – are captivating, bending and lurching as each track requires. Lolloping country funk ballad, ‘Honey Suckle Song‘ is an absolute joy and will be on your next compilation, almost certainly. Having been promised by A&M that he would be a star, they took the curious decision of leaving the record to gather dust on the shelves and, until now, it hasn’t seen the light of the day. While there were many magnificent old ‘new’ records this year, this one deserves a nod more than most.

It’s A Dog’s Life – In The Balance

Over Christmas, HMV had bought a television advert to announce their sale. Curiously, it didn’t mention any actual items that were reduced. Didn’t even show you some sleeves or cases. Nothing. It simply pointed out that HMV have an ‘up to half price sale’ on at the moment. Considering their rather precarious position on the high street, this seemed like yet another sign of how they’re getting it so badly wrong. Apparently, some HMVs, along with branches of their faux-indie bastard offspring Fopp, have been bashing out enormous DVD boxsets for £5 this week. Surely something to shout about, even if it is just a way of clearing slightly dented stock in an attempt to at least get something for it before the increasingly graffitied surfaces morph into a gargantuan female vocalist?

HMV_-_Oxford_Street_1

Their website seems to have switched a lot of ‘dispatches in 5-8 days’ items to ‘Out of Stock’ suggesting that things might be a little more short term right now and the annual crush in the post-Christmas sale was absent when I visited. Indeed, the former preserve of middle-aged men with an unfeasible amount of noxious flatulence seemed largely untroubled. With their technology stands and stock piled everywhere, the shop seemed to be attracting the younger generation. They just weren’t buying anything. They pointed at stuff and mentioned who in their family had had it for Christmas, they flicked casually through racks and seemed to purchase little. The previous CD hounds of a certain age have moved on. They know that this isn’t a place for music lovers anymore. Instead, they frequent independent and second hand record shops. I know, because I smell them there. I am being disingenuous based on the fact that each year I seemed to encounter somebody at the HMV sales with very loose bowels. However, as only small numbers of young people pledge allegiance to their local independent music emporia, the older generations who might otherwise have ambled round HMV and Virgin in the past are now returning to their spiritual homes, leaving Nipper and his unfortunate employees with a customer base who don’t really want to spend much.

Several years ago, I noticed how blatantly the charts CDs suddenly went up in HMV come December: your Bubles and boy bands given prominent displays at two or three pounds more than they were the week before. Why? Because that’s the other HMV customer, ‘family member with a list’ who visits once a year to pick up the presents. It was announced recently that the week before Christmas accounts for almost 10% of the shop’s annual sales, hence the ruthless price hike. How can you know it was previously cheaper if you haven’t been in since last December? After announcing that his strategy for this year’s festive run-up was “fingers crossed” it now remains to be seen if those last minute sales have actually done enough to postpone the inevitable for Chief Executive Simon Fox. It’s hard to believe the end isn’t nigh and it would be terribly sad to see the brand go and for all of those, largely committed, enthusiastic and knowledgable, people to lose their jobs. However, I can’t truly believe that that many music lovers will actually miss the 21st century HMV experience. The Oxford Street store is still a treasure trove, but vinyl prices are regularly £5 higher than in their competitors’ stores at a time when it’s gathering an increasing following. Fopp has stayed fairly close to the original incarnation, even if it is essentially an HMV clearing house. And the vinyl’s really expensive there too.

As the independent stores quietly rub their hands at the thought of more trade and possibly even some cautious expansion, the British high street can prepare for a very curious situation ahead. Do indies move for some of the old HMV stores safe in the knowledge that people expect to be able to buy entertainment there? Could town centre music retail return? The downfall of HMV is not a source of glee, more the depressingly predictable end to a downward spiral started years back when their core product was marginalised. There are still record shops thriving and even some new ones entering the fray. If a shop – and the last of its kind – with such a nationwide presence does go under, it’s hard to believe there won’t be a few more on the way.

Macca 2

Having been reading Robert Levine‘s excellent ‘Free Ride – How the Internet Is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back’ over the last few days, how music is sold and the value attached to it in an internet age has been on my mind. I received the uber-deluxe book edition of Paul McCartney‘s debut solo album for Christmas. It’s over-priced for what it is, but it is utterly gorgeous. A combination of fascinating written content and beautiful photographs from the time of the album’s creation make for a very satisfying and special item. Inevitably, it made me want the equivalent version for ‘McCartney II‘ and I gave in to festive consumerism. The uber-deluxe edition certainly seems to be the current way to get people of a certain age to spend big on music and, while it’s being described by some as the final acts of physical media, there’s a lesson in there for the future. People like beautiful items. I’ve read of teenagers buying LPs with mp3 download codes so that they can listen to the digital copy and pore over the sleeve, despite having no means of playing the disc inside. The wonderful Star Wheel Press album can be bought direct from the band or selected independent retailers of renown in a stunning hand-printed package for only a few pounds more than the download. The Low Anthem posted photos of themselves on Twitter last winter as they took all of the many, many pre-orders for their screen-printed editions of ‘Smart Flesh‘ to the post office. People will still pay for music but they like it to mean something. Independent record shops still understand this and for as long as they do it’s hard to imagine music retail disappearing from the high street entirely. As we enter 2012, I will confidently predict that this time next year there’ll have been a few surprises in the sale of music for us all to reflect on.

Buy Star Wheel Press from the indie which first proclaimed its greatness: Avalanche in Edinburgh

Lennon–We Can Work It Out?

I’ve always been in the McCartney camp myself. Yes, he has made some truly shite solo records and ‘Dance Tonight‘ is reason enough for querying whether or not class is permanent, but Sir Thumbsaloft simply has a better voice, to these ears at least. And he doesn’t do that bloody screaming thing. Or give half his albums to Yoko Ono.

lennon

Look, there are plenty of reasons for me to elevate Macca above Lennon, but I found myself wondering if I’d ever really given the latter a proper chance. With the recent reissuing and remastering of much of his solo output, it seemed like a good time to do so. The extortionate price of the ‘Signature’ boxset ruled that option out and so I’ve been picking up individual albums over the last couple of weeks. The problem, it would seem, was consistency. I should point out that I write this not for Lennon aficionados, but for those of us who’ve come late to all of this and are trying to make sense of records which for some people are like old friends. An album like ‘Plastic Ono Band’ can sound wonderful and no record collection should be with ‘Working Class Hero‘, but when he veers off into repetitive screaming at the end of ‘Mother’ I don’t care who he is or what feelings he was expressing – he’s simply ruining the end of a decent tune.

Put ‘Imagine’ back in its rightful context – the album of the same name – and a lot of the saccharine baggage of being a media shorthand for peace and love gently drifts away, leaving a simple and affecting opening to a record. ‘Walls And Bridges‘ is, according to the well-thumbed last of Uncut‘s Ultimate Music Guide to Lennon which I picked up in the Harrogate branch of Smiths yesterday, much maligned but, as a newcomer, it’s hard to see why. It lollops along nicely and features two of my favourite tracks of his: ‘#9 Dream’ which belongs on that small but superb playlist of songs you haven’t made yet called ‘Aural Cuddles’, and ‘What You Got’, which I discovered some years ago when it was played in the middle of a set of vintage soul and funk on some obscurist radio show I was listening to at the time. It’s a blistering, swaggering little beast and an overlook little gem, even to this day.

There is a part of me which wishes I could placate myself with career spanning best of boxes – such as the accompanying Gimme Some Truth‘ 4 disc set – rather than being as much of an ‘albums’ man as I possibly can when faced with this particular back catalogue. Would I warm more to Lennon if I just listened to his cherry picked best bits? Very possibly, but it’s just not the way I like to get to know music, even though I suspect this policy is actively damaging the way I engage with one of the defining characters in music.

Once YokoWorld has descended things got trickier and ‘Double Fantasy’ and ‘Milk And Honey’ left me feeling distinctly unsatisfied, displaying as they seem to bursts of Lennon at the top of his game, along with some less remarkable moments… and a load of Yoko songs. They’re not especially bad songs in their own right, but when attempting to submerge oneself in an artist’s output it’s a little like listening to ‘Parklife’ with ‘Stutter’ suddenly cropping up after ‘Badhead’. I know that many of the words I’m writing here are tantamount to sacrilege for many Lennonites, but I’m not going for shock value – I’ve pretty much always felt like this. Macca has released too many turkeys to be truly revered for his solo career – despite some truly wonderful records – whereas Lennon appears to have kept the sheen, despite managing to foist upon the world a less than consistent output prior to his untimely death. I’m not attempting to say that Lennon’s status is undeserved – his role in The Beatles is more than enough to cement that – but this reissue campaign serves to underline that sometimes a decent greatest hits is all you need. In my more pretentious time, I attempted to assert that had John Lennon lived, he’d have sounded like Kula Shaker by the end of the Nineties. On reflection, that seems harsh, but I hope you take my point. There are plenty of decent tracks here but, ahem, I would posit that the number of great tracks is rather smaller. At the risk of being all simplistic and needlessly confrontational, I’d rather listen to ‘Chaos And Creation In The Backyard’. But not ‘Memory Almost Full’. I’m not mad.

A nice little shuffle

It’s the question that music obsessives hate even more than, "do you really need a fifth copy of that?" It’s the moment when the brain melts and it becomes impossible to act rationally. It’s the moment when somebody says, "so, what are your top three songs of all time."

How are you supposed to be able to answer that off the top of your head? It depends on the weather, time of year, the bloody time of day on some occasions. You can’t just nail three songs on, can you? Or can you? I try from time to time and get abso-bloody-lutely nowhere. I keep using bloody today. I’m trying to avoid too much fucking near the start of the piece. Ah well, not to worry.

Anyway, the good lady wanted her mp3 player filling up prior to a long journey and was sat alongside me as we scrolled through a quite disturbing number of tracks in iTunes. Now, I still don’t find this anywhere near as satisfying as rummaging through the racks for hours on end, but it offers a different perspective on the collection. What it’s really good at is throwing up odd songs that you’d pretty much forgotten about. 4 Non Blondes anyone? Clarence Carter’s ‘Patches’? Oh yes, just two of the delights I heard again this afternoon.

As these long-ignored tracks blare out, you suddenly find yourself thinking how good they are. Before long you’re vowing to listen to them regularly, only for them to slip into oblivion as quickly as they came forth.

So, rather than do a ‘my favourite tunes’ piece, I thought I’d embark on a shuffling project. I know it’s not a new idea, just look at most music based message boards right now and you’ll see this topic with umpteen replies. But, as I find it makes me dig out old records and influences my listening habits for the week, it might make interesting reading. Where possible, I’ll include the opportunity to hear the songs I refer to. Right then, let’s get this going with…

1. Maximo Park – Nosebleed

Loved ‘Our Earthly Pleasures’ more than I could ever have imagined. I’d written Maximo Park off as another one of those ‘famous for fifteen’ indie types. I was, quite unreservedly, wide of the mark on that one. Both of their albums to date have the feel of a ‘Greatest Hits’ collection about them, and this is a fine example of why. Any album that can overlook this, and yet still release four singles as fan-fucking-tastic as ‘Our Velocity’, ‘Books From Boxes’, ‘Girls Who Play Guitars’ and ‘Karaoke Plays’ must be doing something right. Can’t recommend them enough, and from what I’ve witnessed of them on telly and in print they seem like truly splendid chaps.

This performance of the track is from the Glasto 2007 footage that convinced me of their genius once and for all. Enjoy.

2. Super Furry Animals – Y Gwyneb Iau

I have to be honest about this one. When it first started I couldn’t be absolutely certain what it was. It is, it transpires, a lovely little tune. I’m accustomed to taking ‘Mwng’, the album from which this is taken, in one sitting as a result of having little understanding of the song titles, and thus the lyrics. Any Super Furries fans reading this who don’t have this little gem of a record should set about rectifying that oversight. It catches Gruff et al just before everything had to be quite so BIG. As close to a bare bones record as they’ve ever done, it contains some splendid moments, in particular Ysbeidiau Heulog. Listen here.

3. Bill Wells and Isobel Campbell – Somebody’s On My Mind

A recent addition to the collection, this one. Weirdly, the death of Kevin Greening over Christmas (see my other, more specialist, blog) brought about my interest in pretty much everything Bill Wells has ever done. I was listening back to a tape of Kevin filling in on Xfm’s ‘X-Posure’ show and he used a track from ‘Also In White’, Wells’ 2002 album in the background. Further exploration of his back catalogue led me to this little beauty. Combining minimalist beats and ethereal bleeps, the mini-album from which this comes, ‘Ghost Of Yesterday’ is a slow-burning collection of rather fragile pieces of music that serve to underline Isobel Campbell’s quite magnificent talent as a singer. Recommended, although nab Bill Wells’ ‘Also In White’ first. Listen here.

4. Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet – Eleanor Rigby

Hmm. Not sure about the origins of this one. It’s labelled as ‘A Royal Performance’, although that could mean anything. It’s rather nice, in the sense that pretty much anything with The Brodsky Quartet involved tends to be. It’s a little bit ponderous, and the presence of Sir Thumbsaloft ensures the usual amount of teeth-itching. In fact, Costello doesn’t appear to be on the bloody thing at all. It’s sparse and beautiful thanks to the Brodskys, but I’d rather have heard Costello having a go at it. If you wish to subject yourself.

5. The Innocence Mission – Now The Day Is Over

This band came to my attention as a result of that lovely, lovely man, Richard Hawley. He has quite a regular presence on his own forums over at his website, and in amongst many other topics he’ll occasionally mention music he’s enjoying. He refered to the heartbreakingly delicate, ‘Tomorrow On The Runway’ by this band last year and over time I’ve added a number of their albums to my collection. This is the title track of one of their latter day albums. It’s not their best, but it’s still pretty decent. Karen Peris’ lead vocals remain as eerie and slightly juvenile in their delivery but the overall sense that you’re hearing something special remains throughout. Go get ‘Tomorrow On The Runway’. This, on the other hand, is here.