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 2013: Reissues and Remasters

A combination of milking the death rattle of the CD and the realisation that well presented, in demand items can be priced pretty substantially has seen a rapid increase in deluxe edition in recent years. As I wrote a year ago, there’s plenty of crap being farmed out with the word ‘deluxe’ on it in the hope of people stumping up cash without really inspecting the goods. However, in amongst this endless conveyor belt of recycling, there are still some tremendous items creeping out into the world.

Considering that most second hand record shops are actually part-built of copies of Fleetwood Mac‘s ‘Rumours’, it probably didn’t need another go through the reissue machine, but one excavation of the past for which we should all be grateful is the ‘Who Is William Onyeabor?’ compilation on Luaka Bop. Having spent five years trying to get approval for this wonderful overview of the Nigerian artist’s synth-heavy Afrobeat funk music from William Onyeabor himself, the resulting collection more than justified the efforts. At least partly sourced from original vinyl copies of this hypnotic music, the sense of being let in on something rather special runs throughout this album. The emphatic joy of a neat refrain repeated to grand effect is to found across many of these songs and your best bet is to just dig in and see what you think. ‘Fantastic Man’ is a fine place to do just that.

The endlessly fascinating, if not entirely consistent, work of Harry Nilsson was given a pretty substantial dusting off for a CD box set covering his work for RCA. While the obvious sources of joy are ‘Nilsson Schmilsson’ and ‘Nilsson Sings Newman’, it’s a delight to see fabulously odd records like ‘The Point’ getting the spotlight cast upon them once again. That record is a particular favourite of mine and this set treats the material with respect, the mastering sounding rich and warm without cranking the volume or compressing the sound especially. It’s going for even less than it was on release now and is a great way to add a remarkable artist to your collection should there currently be a void.

Warners looked to recoup a little of the £1.5 million still outstanding from The Beta Band‘s relatively short but glorious career by milking that wonderful music as best they could. Firstly, all three of the EPs collected together as the cryptically titled ‘The Three EPs’ in 1998 were given vinyl reissues for Shiny Pretty  Expensive Frisbee Day in April, while the albums and assorted bonus material were dusted off for a fairly comprehensive set entitled The Regal Years ( 1997-2004). Considering this was rather clearly a cash grab, it was pretty surprising to see the whole thing shoved into one chunky plastic case with a flimsy booklet and priced very generously indeed. Surely, this was primarily aimed at those who already know the music and rare indeed it is for these things to be done so economically. If you’re missing anything, or just fancy the live tracks, b-sides and small number of demos, this is a very affordable purchase.

Light In The Attic continued to deliver deluxe goodies that actually warrant the price tag. Having spent the past eighteen months remastering and reissuing selected nuggets from Lee Hazlewood’s LHI label, the resultant box set – There’s A Dream I’ve Been Saving: Lee Hazlewood Industries 1966-1971 – is their masterwork. Comprising four CDs, a DVD and a truly beautiful 172 page book, it is a remarkable feast for Hazlewood aficionados and open-minded music lovers alike. It captures the furiously industrious five-year period during which country-pop maverick Hazlewood helmed his own imprint, signing a diverse array of talent and releasing the finest work of his solo career. The box restores his albums ‘Forty’, ‘Cowboy In Sweden’ and ‘Requiem For An Almost Lady’ to the public glare, expanding on the wonders found on last year’s taster compilation. The less expected treats come on the latter two discs, which cherry-pick from the rest of the archive and include the fizzing, freewheeling garage of The Kitchen Cinq’s ‘Need All The Help I Can Get’ alongside Honey Ltd’s woozy ballad ‘Tomorrow Your Heart’.  Should you wish to dig a little deeper, a deluxe edition adds three data discs, including every single track the label ever released. The sheer quantity is overwhelming but there is a true treasure trove of delights to dip into over the winter months. As the book recounts, Hazlewood’s music wasn’t always treated with love while he was alive. This package certainly rights that wrong.

The vinyl box set continued to be a veritable cash cow in 2013, the most desirable containing all of the album output by Can. The fabric coated set replicated sleeve details, included original posters and featured a rather short bonus live album. The audiophile forums have been buzzing about how these were made using the same transfers and masters used to make the SACD releases from a decade ago – largely from people who haven’t heard the box yet – but, to my ears at least, they sound pretty good. No, Ege Bamyasi doesn’t quite breathe as much as my original, likewise Tago Mago isn’t identical in its sound either. However, compared to most vinyl editions of these records you could try and lay your hands on right now, they sound pretty damn good. Mute have taken great care with the pressing quality and with a decent pair of speakers and a functioning volume control you can have plenty of fun with this near essential set of music. It’s not especially cheap, mind you.

However, leading the way in good value, good sounding vinyl box sets this year were the Demon Music Group. After the various stories of mp3 sourced and badly mastered CD reissues for various artists, I wasn’t expecting much, but I wrote about two particular sets they put out and I was hugely impressed. Firstly, they released a box covering all of Suede‘s albums, including ‘Sci-Fi Lullabies’ which, along with ‘A New Morning’, had never previously made it to wax. They need playing in a bit, and a delicate touch on your counterweight to avoid sibilance, but these have been crafted with love. Add in a booklet with comprehensive and genuinely interesting interviews with the band by Pete Paphides and this is a pretty impressive package. The individual titles will be receiving releases in February, as the box is pretty much sold out already. The piece I wrote for Clash, giving an album-by-album overview of their career can be found here.

The other wonderful set for which they are responsible only just made it out before Christmas. Replicating the approach to that Suede box, came a gloriously assembled package of the (almost) complete works of The Jesus and Mary Chain. For a band who, initially at least, were all about the sonics, attention to detail when committing their whole discography back to wax was vital. Rest assured that this has clearly been a labour of love. Whether newcomer or hardened aficionado, the importance of some of the material within this box is hard to deny. While the Mary Chain weren’t entirely consistent, their peaks were remarkable and their impact notable. Whether your allegiances lie with direct descendants like My Bloody Valentine and Primal Scream or the stoner-rock scene, these albums had their part to play in their existence. While the fuzzed up charge of 1985 debut Psychocandy is one of life’s essential albums, the rest of their catalogue isn’t always talked of in such hallowed terms.

Listened to in chronological order, these six studio albums offer a portrait of a band that never stood still. Dismantling the noise, and with a nod to Lee Hazlewood’s more gloomy tunes, Darklands was a different, fascinating beast. Having let the brooding songs breathe, there followed 1989’s slightly calculated Automatic where the band seemed to lose direction. 1992’s Honey’s Dead was a revitalised hotch-potch of sounds, while 1994’s Stoned and Dethroned was far better than its title implied, blessed with a little intervention from Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval. By the time they stumbled to a halt with 1998’s decent but inessential ‘Munki’, the band had traversed genres, inspired many and ensured their legacy.

The accompanying booklet lays bare the stories behind each of these records, making use of more of the interview material previously used for the CD/DVD reissues several years ago. As with any of these reissue projects, as lovely as it is to see the artwork in its twelve inch incarnation, to avoid this being an opulently presented collection of sizeable frisbees, what really matters is the mastering. Thankfully, all is well here, and these albums sound as good as they ever have. Warm bass lines are prominent, the guitars spring from the speakers and the music really breathes. Well, as much as ‘Psychocandy’ ever could.

Boosted by radio sessions, live tracks and fan-selected rarities, it is a truly spectacular time capsule and an enjoyably decadent way to absorb some wonderfully important music. Some of the session tracks fizz in the moment with a vitality beyond those vintage albums, ‘Deep One Perfect Morning’ and ‘Coast To Coast’ especially. While not all of the live recordings feel entirely necessary, this is still a hugely satisfying package and a decent template for how these sorts of projects can and should be done.

BEST OF 2013: 18. Suede – Bloodsports

The various Suede gigs since they reformed seemed like a decent idea, a sensible way to draw a proper line under the band instead of the dismal way everything petered out grimly with 2003’s ‘A New Morning’. Having meant so much to so many – myself included – it was only right that they have their victory lap and mark their place in history. However, the band got back together and found they had something worthwhile to say again. The well-worn nineties reunion route gave way to more when it became clear that the old frisson was still there.

Conscious of how things had petered out a decade previous, the selection of material was arduous, with dozens of songs dispatched until it was felt that they had found their form again. The result is the natural follow up to ‘Coming Up’ that never originally came. The album swaggers, fizzes and crackles with life from start to finish. This is not a case of making do because somebody will buy it – this was starting over again. And, to a very large extent, they managed it. I’ve been genuinely surprised how much time I’ve spent with this record over the past six months. ‘Barriers’ and ‘It Starts And Ends With You’ are classic mid-period Suede singles and serve to set proceedings alight pretty quickly. ‘Barriers’ is the perfect statement of intent for an album that looks to re-boot history and reassure the faithful.

‘For The Strangers’ and ‘What Are You Not Telling Me?’ reveal a band once again able to play with your emotions, the former an especially shimmering mid-paced rocker with chiming chords and as good a vocal as Brett Anderson has delivered in many a year. The swooping, swaying chorus marks a very high watermark for the mid-point of the album. To follow it with the punchy ‘Hit Me’ – recently united as a double a-sided single – gets the second half rolling nicely, with that ‘Coming Up’ drum sound setting the tone. There is, inevitably, a bit of nostalgia driving this and, by Christ, I wanted this to be good, but it has displayed a staying power I wasn’t fully anticipating. This is very much Suede Mark II, but it is prime Suede Mark II and, if that’s your sort of thing, then ‘Bloodsports’ is a revelation. This is a comeback on their terms, pitting themselves as their own harshest critics. It seems to have worked, reigniting a hugely creative relationship that didn’t deserve its original final paragraph.

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

Suede – New Adventures In Lo-Fi

It was only a matter of time before the deluxe bubble burst. As I wrote recently, increased prices for barely increased content increasingly rankles and offering fans a bit of extra card or some expanded artwork in return for a sizeable bump in the price is a disturbing current trend. As the good folk at SuperDeluxeEdition reported, the latest Suede album seemed to suffer from this with a £100 edition, possessing all of two additional songs, a print, a T shirt and a USB containing no additional music, actually not proving to be a definitive version of ‘Bloodsports‘. When this then arrived damaged, missing some of the, frankly already scant, content and with careless errors in abundance, the band’s message board rightly lit up. As is always the way in such circumstances, a number of hardcore fans looked to leap down the throat of anyone expressing a dissenting opinion. As someone who didn’t go near the ludicrously priced versions but was keen to hear the record, I’d been dipping in over there in recent weeks and noted with interest a thread about the digital distortion on several tracks, most noticeably ‘What Are You Not Telling Me?“. A whole passage of the track where the guitar soars and a rather beautiful song should take off is marred by digital crackle in the left channel where the volume has been artificially boosted. It’s clearly a fuck up. You can’t argue it sounds good. It doesn’t. It’s a potentially transcendent moment in the song – why would you actively want to spoil this with a distracting noise?

bloodsports

As a vinyl purchaser, I’d assumed I’d miss out on such woeful mastering for the LP mastering and yet it’s even on there. Having always been a fan of the wax, my move to almost 100% vinyl purchases happened about four years ago after getting truly fed up with the loudness war and its resultant mastering. There’s plenty of forum discussion about it out there if you care to look and Nick Southall, Twitter’s ever entertaining @sickmouthy, wrote a fine piece a few years back about this problem. Generally, mastering for vinyl is a little more sympathetic, largely because you physically can’t crank things too high and expect the grooves to be playable. However, the Suede error is at a key point in the chain as it appears everywhere, including an apparently not especially high fidelity high resolution version they’ve got on sale from select sites.

People make mistakes though, don’t they? No big deal. Fess up and sort it out. Ben Folds released a hideously mastered version of his album ‘Way To Normal‘ to such protests that he later put out a far less aggressively loud version. The initial vinyl pressing of Bill Fay‘s beautiful comeback album ‘Life Is People‘ features some unpleasant distortion on the final side and the label responded to concerns, listened to criticisms and rectified it. Surely, a band as big as Suede would ensure that their employees would respond in similar fashion?

Well, not quite. In a capital letter monologue which pitched itself somewhere between blasé and contemptuous, ‘Didz’ described poor quality control as charming and insisted that the crapulous mastering is intentional:

“THEY ARE PART OF THE ATMOSPHERE OF THE TRACKS. IT IS HOW IT SHOULD SOUND. THESE TRACKS ARE CERTAINLY NOT CLIPPING, ALTHOUGH BLOODSPORTS IS MIXED AND MASTERED VERY AGGRESSIVELY (THIS IS WHY THEY SOUND SO LIVE AND LOUD ON THE RADIO) AND I CAN HEAR HOW THIS MIGHT BE MISCONSTRUED. THIS APPLIES TO ALL FORMATS.”

Here is the most egregious example of the ‘atmosphere’ they were aiming for, as uploaded to AudioBoo by someone with a not especially imaginative username. Delightful, isn’t it?

Obviously, every artist should make the music they want to make and have it sound however they want it to, but if this is sincerely the effect Suede were after then they might want to be a bit more gracious at receiving the entirely deserved criticism it brings. Having contempt for the people who actually bother to buy your music has always been a risky approach and it’s downright stupid in the industry of the 21st century. But, irrespective of this, if artists choose to actively dismantle and destroy their own music in this way then I guess we should stop talking of it as bad mastering and simply refer to it as bad music.

The Just Played Verdict: The Suede Reissues

The reissues market really thrived on artists from a certain area being tarted up and dusted down to allow middle-aged types to relive their youth. The Who, The Stones, Costello and Bowie, have all been remastered and repackaged to celebrate every two-bit anniversary, with huge sales to boot. However, with the CD market not quite what it once was, the music of the Nineties is also getting a facelift before the bags have truly formed under its eyes. Beck, Saint Etienne, Radiohead and Pulp have all had relatively recent deluxe outings and latest into the fray come Suede.

suede debutSuede Morning

The trajectory from ‘Best New Band in Britain’ to the chartphobic wet-fart of a finale is fascinating, and the recently released 2CD/DVD sets of all five albums are every bit as good as you would hope. Let’s begin where it all ended: ‘A New Morning’. Having suffered a lengthy and troubled gestation, Suede’s final album was met with critical and popular indifference. After the pop re-birth of ‘Coming Up’ and the drugged, synthetic sound of ‘Head Music’, a polished, optimistic outing – with most rough edges neatly smoothed over – just didn’t really seem like an album they would release. Listened to directly after the previous four records, its flaws remain noticeable if dimmed but, taken in isolation, ‘A New Morning’ still contains some cracking indie jangle. ‘One Hit To The Body’ has a gloriously big chorus and ‘Positivity’, despite being the slick, shuffling first single which signalled the beginning of the end, possesses a great late-period Anderson vocal. The bonus tracks are a mixed bag, with previously unreleased track ‘Refugees’ demonstrating exactly why it had hitherto been hidden from us. The demos, as Brett observes in his splendid sleevenotes, suggest what might have been, stripping back some of the gloss and giving some of these, actually rather fine, songs a chance to get comfortable and spread out a little. As with ‘Head Music’, the b-sides are ripe for a bit of cherry-picking, ‘Simon’ chief amongst them, along with actually-an-a-side ‘Attitude’, previously used to promote the ill-fated ‘Singles’ compilation which served to truly switch out the lights on the band’s original run.

Continue reading “The Just Played Verdict: The Suede Reissues”

November Reviews–Suede, Orange Juice, Sufjan Stevens & Patrick Watson

I know, I know, two of those aren’t November releases but I don’t make the rules. They’re in the November issue, and that’s the way this works. Now be quiet. The quality appears to be in the old stuff this time around.

suede best of

SUEDE – Best Of’ (SUEDE LIMITED)

There’s an old saying that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Brett Anderson realised this soon after the release of Suede’s fifth and, to date, final album, ‘A New Morning’, and thus marked the end of one of the definitive British bands of the Nineties. Shorn of the epic songs of old, not to mention the vast majority of their fanbase, the album spluttered to an inglorious demise and the band soon followed. 2003’s ‘Singles’ appeared in the lower reaches of the album chart and Suede passed into history with the minimum of fuss. Seven years later, it’s time to have another go, even if the first disc is essentially ‘Singles’ shuffled around a bit, but with three songs taken off. What matters, as ever, is that these songs – ‘Animal Nitrate’, ‘The Wild Ones’, ‘Beautiful Ones’ – still sound as vital and invigorating as the first time you heard them. The two discs serve to delineate between the Suede which went about bothering the charts and the Suede which resided only in long-player form, rewarding those who took the time to get to know them properly. Although the second disc appears to be convinced that Suede stopped recording music around 1997, it does serve to illustrate just how grandiose and absolutely fucking spectacular the Anderson/Butler partnership was capable of being. Absolutely essential. 9/10

Regular followers of the Just Played Twitter will know that this one proved to be a tricky bugger for me, what with the promo having the phrase ‘Suede – Best Of – Promo’ delivered in a monotone voice across the start of EVERY BLOODY TRACK. Odd person that I am, I confess that I actually bought a proper copy of this upon its release last week and I still find myself mentally delivering that phrase over some of the tracks. Quite what it was meant to do apart from drive me to distraction, I don’t know. I also suspected that the mastering wasn’t as spiffing on the promo as it would turn out to be in the retail version and so it appears to have proved. Some of the tracks do genuinely sound better after this polishing and the overall impression you get of the band from this compilation is ‘how they hell did they dribble away to nothing?’ Lovely to have them back – in whatever form.

ORANGE JUICE – Coals To Newcastle’ (DOMINO)

A post-punk pop band with limited chart success and a fluid personnel may not seem the obvious recipients of a definitive collection of their recorded output, but Orange Juice were always far from obvious. Shamelessly erudite and delightfully frenetic, they were never likely to win mass appeal, but lyrics like "here’s a penny for your thoughts. Incidentally, you may keep the change" deserve to be heard again. Frontman Edwyn Collins‘ remarkable musical return after suffering two cerebral haemorrhages has already ensured he is responsible for one of 2010’s essential releases and, with this box set, you can make that two. Under-appreciated gems like ‘Untitled Melody’, ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ and ‘What Presence?!‘ still dazzle while each studio album has much to enjoy. Quite how essential various 12" dub versions are is debatable, but the BBC sessions disc offers unpolished and frankly invigorating takes on tracks from across their catalogue. On this occasion, being comprehensive equates to offering more than you want but, with all of their studio releases remastered and accompanied by a beautiful booklet, you’ve got everything you need. 8/10

Funny one this, as I’d been looking forward to it for an age and then had to review it in the space of one week’s listening time. It is delightful and, as you can imagine, contains some beautiful music. It comes with a lovely little booklet too, with some nice details to enrich your enjoyment. It does feel like there is occasionally TOO much of a good thing, in terms of the multiple versions, but few box sets escape that problem. Not that I imagine you care, but this is a tricky one for me now as I have all of the content on discs and a pdf of the booklet but, together, it’s still not a box set. Doesn’t seem worth laying out all of that cash for a proper one though. Still, if Domino are reading this and wanted to show their appreciation for this positive review… No? Oh, ok then.

Nov reviews

SUFJAN STEVENS – ‘The Age Of Adz’ (ASTHMATIC KITTY)

Sometimes, it would be nice if people avoided saying a record was ‘overflowing with ideas’ and simply pointed out that, from time to time, musicians need telling to rein themselves in a bit. There’s a good album in here somewhere, along with a fairly annoying one too. Stevens has always had the hallmarks of the tag ‘acquired taste’, and this only serves to reinforce this fact. Electronic noodling and a twenty-five minute song may be big but they’re not clever. When he’s good, he’s very, very good. But to enjoy those moments, you’ll need the patience of a saint. 5/10

A very odd record to review. I suspect it might just about make sense on the fifty-third play but I didn’t have that luxury. I largely stand by what I said here and the good bits are certainly right up there, but he does make it hard work for us sometimes. There’s a cheap, HQ double vinyl out there which I’ve been lured into ordering. Hopefully, it’ll grow a little in my preferred format.

PATRICK WATSON -  ‘Just Another Ordinary Day’ (SECRET CITY RECORDS)

Remember that glacial, shimmering majesty which made Radiohead‘s ‘Nice Dream’ and ‘Let Down’ so remarkable? Lovely, wasn’t it? This previously under-the-radar debut by Patrick Watson, and his band of the same name, ploughs a similar furrow. Delicate piano and faded-photo vocals are the order of the day and, while it lacks the adventure of later offerings, there’s plenty to enjoy. 7/10

Patrick Watson is the band’s name, as well as that of the chief protagonist – honest! Big fan of this lot – their last two outing are worth hunting down (‘Wooden Arms’ and ‘Close To Paradise’) and this early offering is the gentle, less mature kid brother. Still lovely though, and once you love the other two (and you will) this’ll be a worthy addition to your record collection.

2010 inverted