I’d like to say a few Words

In the pre-Twitter, pre-blog world of the mid-Nineties, I used to buy the NME as much for the singles adverts as the coruscatingly jagged reviews. It was a weekly event, a world of temptation and salvation, and an identity badge held between slightly grubby, inky fingers in front of schoolmates. I’ve been reading music magazines for over twenty years, graduating from Smash Hits to the weeklies, before adding an arsenal of monthly titles to bolster my curiosity and empty my wallet. They were already an integral part of my life before I started writing for one. The reviews section always felt like my spiritual home. The NME big reviews, often accompanied by grand illustrations, were urgent and biting, while the pages of Q and Select allowed you to luxuriate a little longer in the thoughts of many great writers. The losses of Vox, Melody Maker and a grotesquely redesigned Select were hard to take, suggesting that if the magazines were ailing so too was the music.

The early Noughties were a barren time for lovers of the music press. The NME had lost me, wandering off down a (now thankfully reversed) skinny-jeaned route to hell, with more emphasis on pictures than words, while Q was finding it very hard to adjust to a digital world where its original readers had moved towards Mojo, with its fifteen Beatles cover a year. New titles came and went, including the flimsy but spiky BANG! and the woefully limp X-Ray. Into a world of non-ironic Mel C covers and anti-stories about what The Strokes weren’t doing, came Word. With its lower-case masthead and dour picture of Nick Cave on the cover, it didn’t exactly scream “vital music ranting here,” but it did stand out. I took a punt and spent a National Express journey in its company. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but it seemed to be taking contemporary music seriously at a time when few others were. Early issues with substantial pieces on Blur, Elvis Costello and a peculiar new device called the iPod sealed the deal.

A few months after welcoming it to the well-thumbed family, I finally decided to pursue a boyhood dream to get some music writing published and, with email the great leveller in terms of making yourself known, I set about contacting a few of my music writing heroes. When the call from Paul Du Noyer came, it took my twenty year old Literature student self a little while to take it all in but, within minutes, I’d been commissioned to write a page on Elvis Costello, covering three reissues and his jazz album, ‘North‘. Should you wish to put yourself through some slightly torturous bus analogies, you can see that article here.

 

From then on, I was one of Word’s reviews team for almost four years. It was a thrill which never waned, a novelty which never wore off, to go and flick through the magazine in Smiths, despite a copy residing at home, in order to see my work on sale. In a shop. Not that I was deluded enough to think anyone was buying it because I was in it. But I was in it. And that was what mattered. When the Word team rejigged the magazine and thinned down the reviews section, I was no longer required. I found it hard to be annoyed as I couldn’t quite believe I’d got away with it for as long as I had. The support and encouragement of Du Noyer and Jude Rogers, who would quickly take over the reviews section, meant a great deal and without those two particular people, I very much doubt I would still be reviewing today or writing this very piece. That is just one of the many reasons that made Friday’s announcement of the closure of The Word such a kick in the guts.

With the NME having recovered under recently departed editor Krissi Murison’s fine stewardship and Q as good as it has even been with former Word scribe Andrew Harrison in charge and a stellar team of writers in its pages, things didn’t feel quite so bleak for the music press of late. Word is beloved of many media folk but never quite seemed to attract the wider audience it needed. I had occasionally wondered how long it would continue to fight the good fight, but was always reassured by the dependable brash swagger of Mark Ellen and David Hepworth. Was it perfect? No. Is there more to atone for than just that Dido cover way back in 2003? Certainly. But was Word Magazine a creative, welcoming and enthusiastic community which offered something genuinely different? Without doubt, and I will miss it greatly. The great motto for every aspect of the music making, selling and reporting industries seems to be ‘adapt or die’, and yet here was something else which still didn’t work. Maybe there’s just no place for a wide variety of music magazines in the 21st century? Whatever the grim reality of the current situation, the end of this particular magazine hurts more than most. The complete set sits upstairs and will get revisited in the coming weeks. For all the tips, the laughs, the sighs, the ideas, the tunes and the work: thank you. Word.

Where it all began

The latest dip into my oh-so-very self indulgent archives goes right back to the start. As I was lugging bags of shopping out of the boot, the phone rang and I answered, suitably flustered, with a curt, ‘Hello?’, not recognising the number. I was greeted with, “Hi, it’s Paul Du Noyer at Word magazine.” Being more than a little bit of a music press geek, this was a fairly unbelievable moment. My little piece on some Elvis Costello reissues that I’d emailed off a week or so previous had not only been received and read by Paul Du Noyer, but he actually liked it! And here he was, offering me the chance to do a page review of his new one, with the reissues rolled in for good measure. It’s one of those moments that I’ll always remember and it was an instant shot of euphoria that’s hard to top. Looking back at it now, its not too bad. The bus analogy could be worse and you can tell I used to absorb anything and everything I read  – I still regularly read six titles – but I reckon it’s not a bad debut!

Feel free to tell me otherwise!

***

1205f

ELVIS COSTELLO

North (and re-issues of Get Happy! Trust and Punch The Clock)

Deutsche Grammophon

The odds of hearing Elvis Costello singing; “I want to kiss you in a rush, and whisper things to make you blush” were never very high. It is not what you would expect of him. Which is probably why he’s gone and done it. One suspects he’s not keen on the idea of being predictable. His last album, released on a hip-hop label was a College Chart Number One in America. Other recent work included providing the music for a ballet production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and recording the old Chaplin tune ‘Smile’ for a Japanese detective show. The man simply, and rather charmingly, cannot be pigeonholed. Speaking in WORD some months back, Costello told how he felt his last release, ‘When I Was Cruel’, “didn’t have a tremendous amount of heart” to it. By contrast his new album wears its heart ever so firmly on its sleeve.

Those of us willing to invest in Costello’s eclecticism have long since given up trying to guess what will be heard after pressing play on each new release. Pooling classical and jazz influences, ‘North’ plots an emotional journey that one would be churlish to pretend does not begin with his split from Cait O’Riordan in the autumn of last year. A sparse sombre tone pervades the initial tracks and you can’t help but wonder if loss and pain will loom like storm clouds over the entire album.

The mood lightens as the album progresses with a certain air of chronological autobiography. On ‘Still’, The Brodsky Quartet are finally reunited with Costello, a decade on from the glorious ‘Juliet Letters’, and their appearance appears to bring about a more engaging performance style that propels the record to its conclusion. ‘Let Me Tell You About Her’ is virtually a “conventional” love song, one of Costello’s first. You can almost picture Costello gliding over the keys in the corner of a smoky jazz bar, while the muted trumpet finale surely begs for a black and white film for it to soundtrack. It’s gorgeous, with the vocal making full use of Costello’s baritone while the lyrics are immensely heartfelt if unexpectedly, but utterly forgivably, a tad clumsy.

‘North’ comes to its close with ‘I’m In The Mood Again’, thus completing our hero’s journey towards his new-found happiness with Diana Krall. The melody reflects the lighter mood that has replaced the foreboding initial textures, and contentment is as prominent as it can be on an album bearing the legend ‘Elvis Costello’. In the sleeve notes of the remastered ‘Punch The Clock’ Costello describes much of his oeuvre as “allergic to the happy ending”, but, ever one to contradict, ‘North’ appears more than willing to buck such a trend.

As well as ‘Punch The Clock’, ‘Get Happy!’ and ‘Trust’ have also just re-emerged as part of the ongoing reissue programme. It’s hard to pick fault with the whole collection let alone these three, which between them contain over seventy bonus tracks; a live version of ‘High Fidelity’ aping the style of Bowie’s ‘Station To Station’ and practically the entire ‘Punch The Clock’ album in its uncluttered demo form amongst the highlights.

Costello’s accompanying essays are almost worth the admission fee alone, with recollections as wide-ranging as mistakenly adding echo to Chet Baker’s trumpet part on ‘Shipbuilding’ and the magical imagery conjured by the phrase “a rather lifeless lesbian discotheque”, which was apparently the only nearby entertainment during the recording of ‘Get Happy!’. The remastered sound is warm and forgiving, even with parts of ‘Punch The Clock’, and the bonus discs are genuine delights in every instance.

It’s hard to imagine ‘North’ selling as well as these earlier albums did, and I can’t imagine Costello is that bothered. This is another of those albums he’s wanted to make, another expression of his desire to try everything and a record that will no doubt incite as much criticism from some as it will praise from others. It’s not a classic, but it’s a lovingly crafted record that you will keep returning to, slowly allowing its subtle charms to seep in.

Speaking to the BBC a few years ago, Elvis said: “if you don’t like this one, maybe you’ll like the next one. They’re not all a series of red buses that are all the same”. Listening to the shift from ‘When I Was Cruel’ to ‘North’, quite what sort of buses the record companies will be repackaging twenty years from now, God only knows.

Originally published in Word Magazine, 2003

A self-indulgent way to pass the time

Hello, dear readers. The end of the decade best of list is proving tougher to finalise than I thought it would be, so that’ll have to wait just a little longer. As part of this process, I’ve been revisiting some of the reviews I’ve written over the past six or so years and thought it might be interesting to post them here and see if I was on the money, wide of the mark or simply babbling incoherently. I should say before I start this, I’m not overly thrilled with all of these and they will be the original texts as I submitted them to the magazines, and so any bits that got subbed by my erstwhile reviews editors will still be here.

To kick off, a review of Supergrass’ best of, from 2004. I’m in the middle of doing a piece about their charming new extra-curricular project, The Hot Rats, so I thought I’d drop this one out there.

Supergrass_is_10 

SUPERGRASS SUPERGRASS IS 10

(Parlophone)

The grammatically correct but aesthetically depressing title aside, this particular retrospective is something of an unknown history. After their tumultuous arrival in the midst of Brtipop, Supergrass’ star has appeared, through no fault of their own, to have been on the blink. Seemingly rather keen to point out that it wasn’t all cavorting on bikes and bendy-legged Muppets videos, this set gamely attempts to represent both sides of the ‘Grass. .

The soul of Britpop hasn’t lost any of its vigour when it reappears on a fair wedge of tunes culled from the band’s debut, ‘I Should Coco’, a spirit that is reprised on tracks from their underrated and notably under-bought last album, ‘Life On Other Planets’. There is a slight feel, however, of being down the indie-disco and the dreaded fear that Shed Seven might pop up at any time is never far from your mind. Where this record really strikes gold is in highlighting the band’s knack for contemplative, melodic acoustic tunes such as ‘Late In The Day’ and the glorious ‘It’s Not Me’. The parent album of this pair, ‘In It For The Money’, remains their finest achievement and is as deserving of the moniker ‘The Best Of Supergrass’ as this particular compilation.

Hugely enjoyable current single, *Kiss Of Life* comes on like a cross between The Charlatans and T-Rex with added silly noises, while other obligatory new track, *Bullet* offers a heavier sound but manages to forget to add a melody. Where they go next is unknown, but what they’ve already done bears some repeating.

VERDICT: Enjoyable nostalgia, but all you need is their superlative second album.

KEY TRACKS: Grace, Going Out, It’s Not Me

Originally published in Word Magazine 2004

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I largely stand by this, five years on, although there’s a slightly snide reference to Shed Seven there that’s helping nobody.

The other one for today is simply proof that I’ve always known what I was talking about.

elbow

ELBOW

Leaders Of The Free World finds Elbow delivering a work of global majesty.

Beardy, Mancunian melancholia is an integral part of the modern music scene. Where previously local rivals such as Doves have stolen a march on them, Elbow have set about fulfilling the promise that was so clear on their first two albums. Initially purveyors of more muted, atmospheric efforts, this time out the band seem far more confident of their sizeable talents

Mostly set in the urban wilds of Manchester, the brief global view attempted in the title track proves to be a remarkably successful – now say this quietly – ‘political song.’ The beauty of lines such as, “passing the gun from father to feckless son,” in neither being too blatant nor too pious ensures that the ham-fisted, vacuous efforts of many before them are not repeated in this gem of a tune.

The album maintains its quality throughout, two of the latter songs amongst the best things I’ve heard all year. ‘The Everthere’ employs similarly muted percussion to that of Blur’s charming, ‘Out Of Time’ and is one of frontman Guy Garvey’s finest vocal performances on the record. This is only surpassed by ‘Great Expectations,’ which tells the tale of an imaginary wedding on the last bus home between our man and a hitherto unknown young lady, for which “a call-girl with yesterday eyes was our witness.”

Such endearingly well-imagined lyrics are typical of ‘Leaders Of The Free World’, an album that comes good on Elbow’s previous hints at greatness and which will surely rank amongst the finest releases of the year come December.

Leaders Of The Free World is on V2

Originally published in Word Magazine 2005

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What can I say? I was playing the vinyl of this the other night, having just listened to the deluxe edition of ‘Asleep In The Back’ and was reminded that they’ve always been great, it just took the public a while to pick up on that fact. The rather lovely Jude Rogers, who was my reviews editor at the time, was part of the judging team who gave the Mercury Music Prize to them for ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ and she later told me that after falling in love with their fourth album, she was reminded of me banging on about how great they were and that I was right all along. Quite so!

Oh, the many words for Bono

Well, it looks like I’ve found somewhere else to spout about records on a monthly basis after a lengthy hiatus. May say a little more when it’s confirmed. It’s a nice feeling anyway, after a couple of years of not being able to say, "I’m in WH Smith" to loved ones, friends and bemused strangers.

Anyway, it looks like I’ll need to be even more concise with my words than I used to be. As if trying to write about music wasn’t difficult enough in the first place, this is a right bugger because it pretty much guarantees that you can’t set the scene. So, in an attempt to get myself back into old habits, I present the first offerings in a terribly exciting selection of 20 words reviews. Feel free to contribute some yourself. It might even be fun.

 

The Divine ComedyRegeneration

National Express man loses orchestra, suit and raised eyebrow but gains long hair, weird noises and Godrich production. Oddly undervalued.

 

The Divine ComedyAbsent Friends

National Express man regains orchestra, suit and raised eyebrow but loses sense of fun and retreads past to limited effect.

 

Blur Think Tank

Not much Graham, too much Fatboy Slim. Often chilled, sometimes heartbreaking and – whisper it now – actually Blur’s best album yet.

 

U2No Line On The Horizon

Crap. Cack. Shit. Toss. Balls. Plop. Shite. Icky. Smug. Piffle. Cobblers. Codshit. And, just for variety like, absolute smoldering arse.

 

Suddenly that two years hiatus makes sense, doesn’t it?