Write On?

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In a year when the magazine I review for hasn’t actually published a single issue, I appear to have written more words than ever before. The long form approach offered by an online-only existence has largely been a pleasure. Having the freedom to go up to a thousand words where necessary has provided a chance to enjoy writing once more, after finding the relentless constraint of 105 effective words per album increasingly tiring. I don’t do this as my ‘proper’ job and I’m sporadically paid for writing at the very best of times. Does this reflect the quality of what I have to offer? That’s hard to say, but I certainly don’t have the time to throw myself into it to test the theory. I’ve been lucky to do this alongside my ‘real world’ existence for twelve years now but the thought of continuing to be a free(and I do mean free)lancer is one that prompts mixed feelings.

If 2015 has taught us anything, it’s that conventional journalism is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Lucking into paid work at The Word thanks to a plucky email and an attached selection of my writing wouldn’t happen now, and not simply because that publication no longer exists. The desecration of the NME highlights the problem with the old model. I’ve been thinning down print subscriptions this year out of weary disillusionment, despite the guilty sensations that accompany such actions. Q remains a favourite, but it’s now essentially Mojo for the Britpop generation, while Mojo often feels like it’s going round in circles. Thankfully, both still feature favourite writers of mine doing great things. However, Rod Stewart marked the end of the line with Uncut after many years and the NME subscription went within minutes of me picking up the first issue of the new format. The narrowing market means that those publications which still exist are crammed full of the talent that used to be spread a little wider. On the one hand this is a delight for the reader, but the gaps for writers grow ever smaller.

There are plenty of opportunities online, but whether they have long term prospects and even the faintest hint of professional security to them is a question I can’t answer. I adore writing and the power of the well chosen word but it’s a terrifying time to contemplate its role in our future. The other day, Jon Ronson tweeted a link to a wonderful piece he had written for GQ and within minutes somebody had replied with a frustrated screenshot and a request for another link because the page wouldn’t work with his adblocker. Ronson politely pointed out that he was, understandably, on the magazine’s side with this one. The level of entitlement that the Internet has fostered in us all is quite staggering and its consequences will not be fully clear for some time yet. However, if all the advertising that funds the website gets blocked and barely anyone buys the print edition, how is writing ever going to get funded? Sites like Drowned In Sound already have to ask for donations from their readers to stay afloat while other online publishers talk similarly of barely keeping their heads above water. Like them, I largely do this for the love of it, but I have nowhere near the levels of courage some of those online editors possess.

Print publishing seems determined to pursue narrower and narrower focuses out of fear, despite this palpably not working and sales continuing to slide. Consider how often Noel Gallagher, the Manics and, well, any white, male musician appeared on the cover of the NME in its final year or so and you’ll see the problem. Despite now being a grotesque insult to a great institution, it wasn’t until the music weekly lost its heart that Taylor Swift made it to the cover. Now, Chris Moyles and cocking Bojack Horseman may have also had the privilege in close proximity, but the thought remains – why wasn’t she on there while people could still pay for it? When you’re selling fewer than 15,000 copies a week, isn’t it worth a try? Despite often excellent content inside, those late period covers cried of desperation and a desire not to lose the stereotypical loyal reader. Whether there really was anyone that obsessed with Noel still buying the NME in 2015 seems unlikely, but it highlighted how the management teams in charge just want to keep those who are still, blindly, persevering, rather than trying to convince some of those who’ve left or never even tried the product to pick up a copy.

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All of which brings me, stumbling, back round to my initial point. I’ve quite enjoyed a year of relatively unconstrained writing, with more say in my subject matter and more space in which to say it. It’s essentially what I’d probably do here, but over there. At the risk of marking myself out as some sort of publishing Jonah, I suppose I should learn from the fact that the two monthlies for whom the vast majority of my work has been done both tried less obvious cover artists and bolder designs. It’s been some time since you’ve been able to pick up a new copy of either of them, so maybe Noel, The Beatles and endless bloody lists are the key, for now at least.

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And on the subject of lists, I’ve gently reactivated the blog in anticipation of the usual end of year countdown. Despite almost nothing else throughout the other eleven months, plenty of you pop by during December for some verbose enthusing and it’s something of a tradition now. As always, feel free to ensure I don’t miss anything wonderful by leaving a comment or even foisting a link upon me via Twitter before the whole shebang begins. The 2015 list will commence at the very tail end of November in a gently tweaked format. It would be lovely to have you along for the ride.

BEST OF 2014: 27. Tom Williams & The Boat – Easy Fantastic

I had a moment recently when, revisiting various records to consider the finer points of assembling this year’s list, I realised just how tremendous Tom Williams‘ voice is. This sounds slightly ridiculous with both of his previous albums having registered in their respective end of year countdowns and my not exactly minimal enthusing about the band since I first featured them on here back in the summer of 2009. However, you know how sometimes something just catches you off guard and everything stops, leaving you focusing on nothing else? Well, such was the case with ‘Satellite‘, the fourth track on ‘Easy Fantastic‘. Williams’ delivery can seem laid back, even slightly reluctant at times, but that is to miss the point. His voice is a wonderfully emotive instrument, conveying so much with the tiniest upward inflection, elongated vowel or gentle shift in emphasis. That song in particular feels like a master at work, letting out his feelings with meticulous control. It’s a quite remarkable song and as good a point as any for you to begin with the band’s third album.

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That Tom Williams & The Boat are students of, if you’ll forgive the hoary old cliché, ‘the golden age of rock’ is blindingly obvious, but the deployment of such influences is gently endearing rather than wearingly predictable. The fondness for Springsteen and Bowie is in there, but their sound is far broader than that. The standout (theoretically, at least) chart-friendly vintage rock of ‘All Day’, replete with falsetto backups, may have grabbed plenty of the attention to date, but it’s Williams’ often painfully blunt lyrics that make ‘Easy Fantastic’ worthy of multiple visits. Take ‘25’, the album’s most claustrophobically malevolent track, which hinges on the curiously fatigued line “25 and still alive and I ain’t finished yet.” The vivid narratives are the band’s great strength, but the melodies are increasingly up to the challenge.

Despite their second outing, ‘Teenage Blood‘, also, entirely coincidentally, making 27th spot in my 2012 countdown, this is their finest release to date. Having built a strong relationship with their fans and leading the way in terms of how to harness the power of PledgeMusic to put your music out there, The Boat have carved out their little corner of the world. And yet, I can’t help wondering if they’re just one fortuitous break away from being huge. The knack for a dazzling chorus, distinctive vocals and consistent ability to build a genuinely captivating mood across a record strike me as qualities that plenty of people should be finding attractive. I’ll be writing about far more obscure records in this list and some that are households names, but ‘Easy Fantastic‘ is right up there on the list of albums I hope people give a chance and end up falling in love with. Do let me know if such a fairytale unfurls.

Think. Tweet. Swipe. Repeat.

A week staying in a cottage without a whiff of a 3G connection, let alone wi-fi, was all it took. I’d been mulling it over for some time prior to this moment, but circumstances rather splendidly forced me to confront the reality of not being able to share mundane observations with a very small percentage of the world. How had posting pictures of what was playing on my turntable and bitching about the prices, availability or pressing quality of various records become such a constant part of my time?

The internet is a truly remarkable platform for so much and yet it is also a compulsive draw, a technicolour black hole competing for every available second of every available day. The sense that it is never done is the subconscious hypnotism that it exerts, a little like the moreish magic dust they put on Pringles. I know people who appear to be online at all hours of the day, to the point that I’ve wondered when they do ‘other’ stuff. Of course, it takes a bit of welcome perspective to point out to you that if you’re conscious of their near omnipresence, you might not be best placed to cast the first stone.

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A record, playing

Twitter is the apogee of this perma-broadcasting culture and, while it undoubtedly provides a rich cultural collage if you curate it right, it is an incredibly repetitive torrent of blah, quickly reaching a stage where it is just another form of digital noise in our lives. As part of the second series of ‘Black Mirror’, stand alone stories of digitally-driven dystopias, Charlie Brooker wrote the rather powerful episode ‘Be Right Back’. It is a sharply focused commentary on the versions of ourselves we present online and, the final attic scene aside, a fantastic piece of drama. Domnhall Gleeson’s ‘Ash’ is always on the look out for ‘content’ to post to his followers, relentlessly conscious of how everything will be perceived. If you’re somebody who does just glance at Twitter once a day, or even week, then you are an enviable totem of self-control. I suspect such users are increasingly few and far between, but I’m starting to see the appeal.

Before anyone points out that you almost certainly ended up reading this because of a tweet I emitted promoting it, I’m not writing Twitter off as a means of communication, of discovery and of collaboration. Far from it. If anything, I’m trying to reclaim its potency by not diluting it and spreading it over everything, like the squeezy bottle of mayonnaise in the fridge door. However, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading a lot more, fixating on the glorious sound of my new turntable and actually doing stuff.

All of which leads me, mercifully, to my point. Twitter pretty much killed long form writing for me. I never ‘had time’ to do it and I reckoned I could share my thoughts more effectively in little bursts of 140 characters here and there. Which is, of course, utter shite. I love the power of words and I adore the intensely satisfying dance that is entered into when attempting to arrange them exactly how I want them in order to convey a point. Carefully applied language can tickle, massage and seduce the brain and the current drive to keep content coming and stay up to speed with the perceived rapidity of the world around us is crushingly fatuous. Does anyone really want little fragments of loads of things as opposed to small portions of well-curated, carefully constructed material? And I know these things are not mutually exclusive, but the incessant presence of the former pushes the latter to the background and makes it far harder to sustain. The endlessly spouted media narrative about teenagers having almost zero attention span spun by middle-aged white men who live in large houses and drink a lot of coffee through those bloody stupid tiny holes in the plastic lids, is utterly asinine. It may well be positively received in board meetings, but when I read about Radio 1’s big ‘listen, watch, share’ drive and encounter phrases like ‘the smartphone generation’ it makes my soul ache. Teenagers still buy albums, still watch films, still get obsessed with cultural heroes that have been passed down through time and still want to be intellectually stimulated. That older generations are so utterly obsessed with scrolling and refreshing is the actual source of such lazy, potentially self-fulfilling cultural desecration.

We’re at risk of trying to solve situations that only initially exist hypothetically, setting in motion a chain of events whereby we try to address each artificially constructed set of circumstances. How do TV advertisers feel when the channels they’re paying put up specific hashtags during programmes to encourage viewers to be actively distracted during their broadcast? What do artists really think when they pull on their best shit-eating grins to tweet all of their adoring followers about how their new album is only 99p this week via Google Play? I’m no luddite, despite my vinyl obsession, but I am feeling pretty digitally numb right now. I feel slightly ludicrous saying that I’m weaning myself off of Twitter, but in lieu of an intervention from concerned digital citizens I’ve deleted the app and I’m keeping an eye from a distance. I intend to return to the more conversational blogging style I pursued some years ago from time to time, but who knows. I’m certainly going to try and offer much less needless fluff. I’ll still be lurking, watching what’s going on, no doubt, but when, or if, I feel like I have something worth saying, I’ll probably say it here. And that’ll do.

BEST OF 2013: Bob Stanley – Yeah Yeah Yeah

The music book is a tricky thing to get right. You need to leap along at a reasonable pace to avoid losing the reader’s interest, but you have to reveal enough to not make them feel like you’re telling them what they already know. This year has yielded a number of excellent reads, as well as several hugely anticipated titles. ‘Isle Of Noises: Conversations With Great British Songwriters’ by Daniel Rachel is a great hardback thumbfest to dip in and out of, including a hugely interesting natter with Laura Marling. Alan McGee‘s ‘Creation Stories – Riots, Raves and Running A Label’ is certainly a page turner, if it is a little bit close to one middle-aged man trying to remind the world how ‘kerrrr-a-zyyyy’ he used to be. Tracey Thorn‘s ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’ would have been my favourite music title in pretty much any other year, laced as it is with warmth, humour and honesty. It is a fine, fine work and worth a read even if her (frankly excellent) music isn’t your sort of thing.

The Beatles were finally written about, after decades of being almost entirely ignored. Mark Lewisohn unveiled the first of three parts of his enormous biography of the band, covering up to the point where they started to be famous. ‘Tune In’ is sat behind me now, looking all big and important. Oddly enough, I’ve not yet got around to actually picking it up and reading it but I gather it has the Beatle geeks in raptures.

The most anticipated rock autobiography in recent memory also put in an appearance and I only wish it was still being anticipated as, at that point at least, I was convinced it would be bloody brilliant. As it was, the Penguin Classic notion lost any sense of charm when it became clear that Morrissey‘s ‘Autobiography’ was a half-hearted, unedited, poorly-executed and, let’s be honest, badly written piss in the wind. You could almost picture him grinning smugly at descriptions which he no doubt thought were quirky and whimsical but which often lapsed into cliche. Add in his woeful grasp of tenses or narrative structure and it became a very tedious read. By the time you reach the hundred odd pages on how big the crowds are on his foreign tours, any good will has long since evaporated and the bitterness sits plainly on the surface. It is probably the most disappointing aspect of this year in music and until he turns up with a band who can actually play and songs I can actually hum, he can keep tinkering with his legacy as much as he likes, but I won’t be listening.

However, as you might have guessed from this piece’s title, there was one quite remarkable work of music writing which towered above the rest of this year’s releases. After years of work by journalist, musician and massive fan Bob Stanley, a hugely entertaining history of modern pop was upon us. In August, en route back from my honeymoon, I spent an hour in Bob’s company, discussing this tremendous book and getting his views on how the music scene affects us all. The interview I wrote up for Clash can be read below and I cannot recommend ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah – The Story Of Modern Pop’ enough.

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Charting history: Bob Stanley

Always a student of pop, as well as being a creator of some rather fine tunes himself as one third of Saint Etienne, Bob Stanley has undertaken the sizeable task of plotting a course through the history of popular music from the early fifties to the dawn of the 21st century. ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop’ is that rare thing: a doorstop of a book that breezes by in no time. Where so much narrating of the heady adrenalin rush found from popular music has somehow resulted in bloated, arduous prose, Stanley tells this tale as an eloquent enthusiast, drawing you in and guiding your listening at every turn. I met up with him to find out why he’d undertaken such a mammoth task and to get a sense of what makes popular music so endlessly fascinating.

This book took five years to craft, alongside your work with Saint Etienne.  That commitment surely demonstrates that this project must mean a lot to you?

It was always a labour of love; it was never a chore. I made sure before I started that I had a pretty tight structure and that, if I thought of things along the way that I’d forgotten in the original layout, I’d be able to slot them in. It was quite overwhelming a lot of the time, especially lugging photocopies around on tour and stuff. It was me wanting to document stuff before it’s completely forgotten. Like the early fifties era or, what I find scary is, it’s almost anything up until The Beatles come along that suddenly feels very old and very far away. So it was kind of wanting to get that too. This is an era I grew up understanding and, before half of it gets lost, I wanted to get it down on paper.

As a music writer, artist and curator, how much of the book needed to be researched and how much did you already know?

There were a lot of things I thought I knew enough about, like the early days of house music, for one, which I didn’t, as it turned out. I’d be reading up on stuff to get anecdotes and make sure I wasn’t remembering things wrong. I was lucky in that I didn’t have to do any interviews. I wanted to keep all of the quotes contemporary and if they aren’t, I point that out. I wanted it to read like it would have felt to live through it and obviously I’ve only lived through about half the book, or at least that I can remember.

You follow a chronological path, but use this as a framework for stopping off at a range of artists. Presumably this meant you could take the odd diversion for artists for whom you harbour something of a soft spot?

Yeah. I suppose so. Obviously there’s a lot of my own personal taste in there. I did want to cover [American singer-songrwriter from the Sixties] Lou Christie and I wrote a lot about [Eighties band and label] Shut Up and Dance. There’s probably a lot more on them than there is on Aretha Franklin, for instance. But, on the whole, it’s people who’ve had a major influence in some way, even if they didn’t have it at the time. So, I had to write a fair amount on The Stooges who, as time goes by, seem more and more important. A lot of later music goes back to The Stooges, and there’s no obvious precedent to them either. The framework was an excuse to bring in things I wanted to write about occasionally. But, while I was writing it, I think one of the things that surprised me was how much the structure did pretty much sit alongside the traditional history of rock. It ended up being much closer to that than I thought it was going to, but hopefully that makes it more readable, or less idiosyncratic.

You point out some of the comically awful lyrics of various eras, such as Bob Merrill’s “If I knew you were comin’, I’d have baked a cake, howdja doo, howdja doo, howjda doo.” How important are lyrics in pop music?

It’s not crucial, but bad lyrics can easily wreck a song. It’s more important not to write some dreadful lyrics than to write a terrific lyric. Bob Merrill and that whole era was something I didn’t really know much about before I wrote the book. The artists who were huge at that time are largely forgotten. The period from the end of the war is something which people have a fairly good handle on: swing, Glenn Miller, the early days of Frank Sinatra. But the early fifties, immediately before rock and roll, are really undocumented. That was a fascinating period to research.

You talk in the book about how the emergence of The Beatles put everything that had come before into a museum – could that happen again?

I don’t think so. It feels like everything from the past is part of the present now, which kind of means nobody thinks of what’s going to happen in the future. The Year 2000 was a red line when I was growing up; everybody thought what would life be like in the year 2000 and, particularly, what would music be like? So I’m quite obsessed with music from the year 2000 because it exists now, it’s a thing. Because of that, it’s very difficult to make stuff that sounds brand new and for something to have that much of a completely overwhelming effect – I can’t really see how it would happen, but I’d love to be proved wrong.

There’s a great line in the book about nobody wanting to know about how much porn Jarvis had been watching in his hotel room, they just wanted Billie’s cheerful pop. Britpop seemed really exciting when I was living it, but now it seems quite sad and limp. You say that it was “a reaction against new ideas.” Did it leave any significant mark on music?

I think it’s still quite hard to put it into perspective, because there are so many people like yourself who were younger than me when it happened and really love a group like the Longpigs, who I just think are absolutely unlistenable. But I’m very fond of what went immediately before it, and we were part of it. Denim, World of Twist and Pulp were the only groups out of that time who were clearly looking back to the Sixties and Seventies, but trying to do something new with it, and that’s what Britpop didn’t really do at all. It was sticking its fingers in its ears about what else was going on around it, and that’s what I found disappointing about it all. Suede sound a lot better to me now than they did at the time.  I couldn’t really get on with Brett’s voice then, but now I can see where their place is and they’re a little bit under the sort of Blur, Oasis, Pulp thing. It never felt like they were smaller than Pulp at the time, but they do seem smaller than Pulp now, and they certainly wrote some really cracking tunes.

Does the fact that Britpop can mean so much to some people but very little to others demonstrate how important context is to the enjoyment of music?

I think context is crucial in trying to understand why a record is a great record and why a song is a great song. You have to really know what else was around it at the time. Whenever I’ve looked at old charts, thinking I’ve got a fair idea in my head of what were the biggest selling records of, say, 1967, it’s never what people would think if they just heard things still played on the radio now or read a book about Jimi Hendrix. So, I think to get the full impact, context is really important.

You raise this point in relation to the whole late-Seventies punk and post punk bands, noting that they weren’t as era-defining as the media would have it these days.

Absolutely. There was a recent Big Issue cover with The Clash on it and the quote was “We had to do it. It was now or never!” It’s like, how can you say that now? I presume that’s a current quote, and I presume it’s a new interview they’ve done with Mick Jones, but it doesn’t make any sense. It wasn’t now or never. Nothing really changed. I mean, things did change, but it wasn’t the big seismic change that they wanted; it wasn’t Year Zero. And The Clash, of all people, with what they did fairly soon afterwards, should feel embarrassed to be saying things like that.

You suggest that Motown’s primary role wasn’t to make us think so much as make us dance. That seems pretty common in modern pop. Has anything from the last 15-20 years done much more than make us dance?

God, what’s happened in the last ten-fifteen years? There must be something that’s done more than make us dance. It’s part of the idea that it’s very difficult to do something new but the Manics, I suppose, are an example. It was twenty years ago, but they intentionally set out to make people not scared to be seen as intelligent. They’d deliberately drop names in where they guessed people may not know who they were talking about, and those people would then look them up and, from that, they got a really devoted following, which I think is really admirable. I can’t think of anyone since who’s really done that. I suppose my favourite things from the last ten-fifteen years would be Zenomania productions, which are pretty straightforward pop that’s just there to make you dance, but they can be quite sly with how they play with the formula. But maybe it’s not that intellectually stimulating!

The Nineties was a weird decade, where musical waters were muddied. When you look at old charts from that time, there’s such a strange mix that it almost feels like anyone could sell a few records at that point?

Well, I find the early Nineties a really fascinating period and there’s a lot of stuff from then that is good, it’s just none of it was coming from Britain, really. You had Babylon Zoo at Number One at the heights of Britpop. I was reading a thing about that recently and somebody said it’s kind of a bit grunge and a bit dance and it covers so many different bases, even though it’s a horrible record. That kind of explains why it was such a big hit.

That’s it though, isn’t it? It demonstrates quite well the idea that all bets were off and anything could be a hit.

What a strange record. It’s got to be one of the weirdest things ever released. It’s a record that everybody bought, even though they knew it wasn’t really what they wanted. You just want to hear the first thirty-five seconds and that’s it.

An example of something so odd that still deserves its place in pop history seems a suitably peculiar note to finish on. 

It all finished with Babylon Zoo.

BEST OF 2012: Another Twenty

The process of putting together the end of year list is long and drawn out. Albums move up and down a large document until the final thirty reveal themselves. But what of the late bloomers, forgotten charmers or even albums released in December? Well, they miss out. Simple as that and, as I said back at the start of the month, a year from now I’ll be looking back and wanting to move a few around. In an attempt to stave off some of that geek disillusionment, here are another twenty albums which for one reason or another were not in that main list to help you while away the hours betwixt Christmas and New Year. Enjoy!

Andy Burrows – Company

If albums could make the main list on one song, this would have. ‘Maybe You’ is one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard all year.

Calexico – Algiers

Meatier, smoother and no less melodic. Calexico in fighting form.

Chromatics – Kill For Love

Shimmering Eighties-inflected Italian disco for the ‘Drive’ soundtrack fan in your life.

Colorama – Good Music

Welsh guitar pop which starts slinky and gradually unfurls into an array of gorgeous melodies

Dark Dark Dark – Who Needs Who

Following up ‘Wild Go’, this continues the sparse, piano-led arrangements circling Nona Marie Invie’s naggingly familiar voice.

Ellen And The Escapades – All The Crooked Scenes

Has to be heard for Ellen’s voice. Country tinged indie rock. Beautiful.

Father John Misty – Fear Fun

So close to the original list, a Bella Union delight. J Tillman’s new moniker with fleshed out sounds but the same devastating voice.

Bill Fay – Life Is People

Even closer to the original list. I may have done Mr Fay a disservice. A folk legend based on two albums from forty years ago, this is him now. Luscious production, a lived-in voice and a little help from his friends. Wonderful stuff.

Grizzly Bear – Shields

I really like this lot and the album is perhaps their most measured, crafted outing to date. Still have capacity to surprise and enthrall.

Julia Holter – Ekstasis

Twinkly, squelchy electronica below floaty vocals. A bewitching album.

Jesca Hoop – The House That Jack Built

After the true quirkiness of her earlier releases, this seemed relatively reserved, with some purposeful power pop chops on show. The quieter tracks truly shine however.

La Sera – Sees The Light

Gently jangling, girl group indie pop with a ferocious underbelly. All about the classic melodies.

Lambchop – Mr M

A little like Calexico, some bands reach a point where their majesty is taken for granted. This is a luscious, beautifully recorded record with Kurt Wagner in fine form vocally and lyrically. His best in some time.

Cate Le Bon – Cyrk

A little ragged around edges and blessed with a unique voice, this Seventies rock jangle is endorsed by Gruff Rhys and a very infectious brew.

Moon Duo – Circles

Plain bloody noisy. Buy it on vinyl. Turn it up loud. Leap around the room.

Race Horses – Furniture

Quirky indie pop with hints of Pulp, Dogs Die In Hot Cars and an alternative Morrissey who liked to go to discos. Great fun.

Max Richter – Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Recomposed

I know the original, but this meticulously crafted reworking is right up there with his usual work

Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light

The formula went unmessed with and there was much to love. The songwriting was back up to scratch after several middling efforts.

Wild Nothing – Nocturne

Swoonsome indie jangle for fans of Real Estate via the Bella Union stable. Delightful packaging too.

Rachel Zeffira – The Deserters

Released far too late to make the end of year lists, this is a majestic and stirring record. Glacial, orchestral, beautiful.

BEST OF 2011: 22. Sarabeth Tucek – Get Well Soon

An album which has been criminally ignored, this one. Miss the right breeze of softly massaged hype, fail to arrive in the right month or go to the right person for review and truly beautiful records like this can sometimes go almost completely unnoticed. That said, but for my exposure to her debut four years ago, I might not have noticed its many charms. Indeed, I first happened upon the charms of this particular artist when skimming through one of Spillers Records’ weekly mailouts at the end of 2007. Ashli Todd, who now runs the whole shebang, was wildly enthusing about Sarabeth Tucek and I clicked through to listen to a few samples before ordering the CD. Some months later, whilst visiting Britain’s finest city, in feverishly optimistic pursuit of success in the rugby, I popped into Spillers, situated as it still was then on The Hayes, for a quick rummage in the vinyl racks. Happening upon a vinyl copy, I was overcome with a sense I’ve since learnt to not even fight: the need to have a record I love on my favourite format, despite already owning the tunes. As I took it to the counter, Ashli began wildly enthusing about how good it was and I replied that I already knew as I’d bought the CD some months ago. After a slightly odd look, we then rhapsodised about that particular debut for several minutes before I went off to watch the boys in red take a hiding.

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Get Well Soon’ is a very different record to that debut, documenting the death of Tucek’s father and borne out of a period of lows and self-destructive behaviour which ensured that this was never simply going to be more of the same. It sounds like the kind of album you’d dig out of the crates at a record fair, pick up on the basis of its beautiful sleeve and buy on a whim, only to find you’ve unearthed a lost classic. ‘The Fireman’ is a warm, spacious recording and Tucek’s vocal, which sits atop, delivering lines like “The Fireman saved many a home but the fireman could save his own,” is utterly beautiful. When the plucked guitar line comes in, my day is quantifiably improved. It’s one of those little moments in songs which cause the hairs to go up on your neck and other assorted clichés which describe discernable psychical reactions. Soft and measured seems to be the musical order of the day here but, as anyone who likes a little Cat Power or ‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle’ knows, when this is executed to perfection, it can be genuinely very affecting.

State I Am In’ lilts and chugs with a nod to down-tempo Pretenders and early Nineties American indie. It’s a charming bit of musical self-confidence amongst a great deal of heartache and melodic fragility. In contrast, the faintly unsettling drone-like introduction to ‘Rising’ gradually rumbles its way to an outburst of guitars and the parting shot, “I can’t wait to see you again and I cannot see you again.” That said, gorgeously arranged material, evoking late Sixties, early Seventies singer-songwriters of note, remains the staple fare. If Karen Dalton brightens and emboldens your world, then this album will occupying a similar place in your heart after a number of listens. If the name Karen Dalton means nothing to you, do some research, spend £20 on her two studio albums and thank me later.

Get Well Soon’ is an album which definitely benefits from regular plays. While its delights are not in any way hard to find on initial listens, repeated exposure will allow it to slowly curl its way around your emotions and eek out a little place in your heart. It’s the sort of album you’ll tell people about excitedly and buy for the sensitive types in your life. The album’s final lines offer a measured sense of optimism and triumph: “It just takes time, get well soon. I was once just like you, get well soon.” Many great records have been birthed out of traumatic or intense periods of an artist’s life, and to that list of fine albums can be added ‘Get Well Soon’.

Laura Marling – Legendary Status Assured

This was the first time I’ve felt old at a gig. Plenty where I’ve felt young but never previously old. Laura Marling has a lot of young fans. Who like to ‘woooo’ at their favourite songs. Mainly the girls, to be absolutely fair, although there were many ludicrously complex hairstyles from the lads, so as not to let the side down. Pleasant bunch, nonetheless. Just very young. Did I mention that?

Furnishing the assembled throng in Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre with not one but two high quality support acts was rather generous and the first of these, Boy And Bear, might be best described as a cross between Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons with additional ‘wooos’. Which is not to say they’re made up of young, female Laura Marling fans. It’s more to convey their fondness for rather lovely harmonies. Decent stage banter and a splendidly warm sound too, topped off by a bloody wonderful rendition of Bon Iver‘s ‘Flume‘. They did point out that you can get some free music from their Myspace, so it seems only polite to do so

Next up was Alessi’s Ark, and Alessi’s initial, fluttery, kooky utterances make me worry that I might be about to witness a low budget Bjork impression, but she soon gets into her flow. She passes on wisdom learnt from one of Marling’s band too: "Did you know that the supermarket Iceland is run by a company from Iceland?" Such irreverent banter is entirely at odds with her bewitching songs and I look forward to getting to know her better when she releases an album on Bella Union in the second half of the year. Her thoroughly splendid EP, ‘Soul Proprietor‘ is already available and you can sample it on Spotify.

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The night, perhaps unsurprisingly, still very much belonged to Laura Marling, however, and her set demonstrated exactly how far she has come since the relatively tentative steps of ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’. The peroxide hair colour now transformed to autumnal browns (something she appeared to have at least partly reversed by the time she appeared on Later) and stage banter something which has been thankfully added to the repertoire, this performance had little in common with the last time I saw her, towards the end of 2008, in a small venue in Nottingham. Equally spellbinding, I’ll concede, but on this evidence, Marling will be a musical force for decades to come because there is something genuinely distinctive about her style, her performance and her music.

The set was heavily weighted in favour of the new album which suited me just fine, only serving to further clarify just how strong the new material is. She’s a captivating presence from the off and when her band melt into the shadows leaving the entire middle section of the show as a solo performance, it’s hard not to sit there slack-jawed in conspicuous awe. Unassuming, pathologically straight-forward and simply magnificent, Marling’s recent surge in popularity is both heartening and just. With a third album on the way before the end of the year, there will surely be another tour. I will consider you something of a fool if you don’t possess yourself of a ticket.