RSD13: A love letter to record shops by Pete Paphides

April 20th was a surprisingly pleasant day, emerging delicately from weeks of rain and brutally cold mornings. For me, it began at 3:25 am in the not especially sleepy centre of Bristol. A purposeful walk up Park Street followed, witnessing the tail end of some fairly substantial nights out. A heaving kebab shop at ten to four in the morning is a new sight to me. I’m a record collector: what do you expect? By four, I was fifteenth in the queue at Rise in Bristol and by six I was nursing a hot drink in Friska, the wonderful cafe which now inhabits most of their ground floor. It was a splendid morning and I could go on, but this year’s Record Store Day writeup is not really about me. Immediately after the event, I asked for your experiences of the day and your opinions on how it is run. You can still contribute here. The record shop debrief has already happened in London, but I’m hopeful that there is scope for a little dialogue this year between the organisers and the fans. We support those shops all year round and, judging by your responses, also rather enjoy RSD, but there seem to be few kinks to iron out, a few grumbles to pacify, some legitimate concerns to be heard. 

Over the next week or so, Just Played will feature various musings on the event from the perspective of you – the record buyers – which, I hope, will largely serve to underline the massive appreciation of independent record shops that exists amongst a growing community. To begin, I am absolutely delighted to be able to host a guest piece from acclaimed music writer, host of 6 Music’s ‘Vinyl Revival’ and all round record shop connoisseur, Pete Paphides

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Midnight on Friday night and I still don’t know which record shop I’m going to head for. On previous years, I’ve headed for Berwick St on the basis that there are a few shops there to spread the demand, but with every passing year the queues get bigger. Flashback on Essex Road would be a more sensible option, but they open at 10am, and if you’ve already been awake since 4am, those extra two hours (most shops open at 8am on Record Store Day) are really going to pinch. Up in Manchester, they’ve been queuing outside Piccadilly Records since late on Friday evening.

I’m 43 and I’ve been buying vinyl from record shops for most of my life. For a brief period in the 90s, when vinyl appeared to be on its last legs, I stopped going to record shops. For about two years, I found myself struggling to connect with music in the way that I had done before I started writing about music for a living. Finally, I realised that the thing that made it exciting again was the thing that made it exciting in the first place. It was the same thing that I felt the first time I went to Discus Records in South Yardley, having been told by my mum that I could pick any two records I wanted (I chose The Barron Knights and John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John). I don’t remember too much about Discus, but I do recall a couple of curved hoods fixed into the wall at head height – the sort that, in the 60s, used to form the acoustic booths where people would try out the records they were thinking of buying. In 1979, there were no longer record players in the ones at Discus and, without them, I couldn’t work out what the booths were for.

Record shops. Thirty-four years later, that’s still pretty much how this works for me. The velocity at which, say, Spotify allows me to consume new music dilutes the entire experience. It appeals to the worst of my nature. If I don’t understand what I’m hearing, then I just move onto something more immediate. It makes me more passive. In fact, I think it makes us all into mini-Simon Cowells, sitting back on our easy chairs, hands poised on the buzzer, imperiously daring artists to entertain us. Does your favourite artist want you to listen to them on Spotify? It’s unlikely. In the late 90s, Spotify and iTunes were beyond the realms of most people’s imaginings, but my charmed music journo life gave me a taste of it – the free CDs landing on my doormat at a greater velocity than I could hear them made a similarly passive listener of me.

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The record that pulled me back in was Belle & Sebastian’s ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’. Beautiful as it looked on the CD, it was pretty apparent from the filtered image of the girl on the sleeve and the impeccably chosen font, that this was a design for an actual record sleeve. And, as with The Smiths a decade previously, the record sleeve and the music to which it paid host were part of one complete package. So I went to a shop on Hanway Street W1 and there it was. And not just ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’. Record shops were also where the fun was.

Central London is still ace for record shops – within a half-mile radius of Berwick Street there are half a dozen – but there’s something about a local satellite town shop that elicits a different thrill. I guess that feeds back to those formative experiences at places like Discus and my main childhood record shop Easy Listening in Acocks Green, shops that would have to run the gamut of local musical taste – from grandmothers after the TV-advertised Julio Iglesias record to the local goth after a March Violets 12-inch. Those shops were just as much for everyone as, say, the fishmonger or the hardware store. When you found an obscure record you loved in those shops, it seemed to cement the connection between you and that record. It felt like you were rescuing it. But, more to the point, for most of the time I went to those shops, I wasn’t looking for obscure music. I liked chart music. I liked the ex-jukebox records that came in a sealed plastic bag, five for £1.25 with the titles of all five records typed onto the plain white sleeve of the top single.

I still like those sorts of shops now – which is sad, because there aren’t many of them left. Long immortalised in the lyrics of ‘Shakermaker’, Sifters in Manchester used to be one of them. These days it’s just secondhand records and CDs, but behind the counter, you can still see the specially made wooden shelf with 50 seven-inch size sections, each corresponding to a position in the top 50. When Bob Stanley and I visited the shop a couple of years ago, “Mr Sifter” aka Peter Howard told us that on the week of a really big number one – say, ‘Hello’ by Lionel Richie – they could expect to sell 100-200 copies.

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David’s in Letchworth Garden City is one of those old-fashioned, there-to-reflect-the-needs-of-the-locale type of record shops that has, miraculously, kept going. Two years ago, I went there and picked up an Anne Briggs reissue and a few seven-inches of songs that I didn’t even know had come out on seven-inch. Not the indie stuff that always appears on seven-inch. But proper pop hits like McFly’s ‘Shine’ A Light and Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s ‘Bittersweet’. The sort of songs that are still, after all this time, most ideally suited to the format. There they were on the countertop in a wooden box marked “NEW RELEASES”, just like the box at Easy Listening thirty years previously.

So, when I wake up on the early hours of Saturday, I plump for David’s again. Who would be queuing in Letchworth at 5am? Thirty people, to be exact. I’ve layered up, but within half an hour, I start to lose the sensation in my toes. Just behind me are three people in their early 20s. Not an ounce of fat to spare between them. The sole woman among them has a huge rip in her jeans. There’s a blanket in the car. I feel like running back to fetch it for her. I ask one of them what he’s hoping to pick up. “Perhaps the Miles Davis? I’m not really sure.” Mostly, he’s here, because it’s a happening of sorts. And whatever he comes away with will effectively serve as a three-dimensional diary entry of Record Store Day 2013. And, of course, the records you actually buy are diary entries. You remember the shop; you remember what else you were doing that day; and, by extension, what was happening in your life at that time.

The other good thing about actually going to the shop – in fact, the best thing about record shops – is that you invariably come away with something you didn’t know you wanted. More than any other day, that’s worth keeping in mind on Record Store Day. After three hours of waiting – three hours made easier towards the end by the trays of tea and coffee served by shop staff – I’m in the shop. The queue takes you past racks of new vinyl. In the reduced section, I notice an album whose existence on vinyl is news to me – a selection of covers recorded by Elton John when he was a jobbing musician on budget price soundalike albums of current hits. Also on the record are a selections of songs he recorded for Joe Boyd’s publishing company Warlock. When Elton originally sang them, these versions of songs by Nick Drake and Beverley Martyn were intended not for public consumption, but to entice mainstream artists to record them. The odd thing about Record Store Day is that it drives people to extremes in order to procure releases on the list, and yet once they’ve got what they were after, they walk straight out of the shop, oblivious to the other rarities sitting there. Three years ago, the must-have RSD release was Blur’s ‘Fool’s Day’. By the end of the day, copies were changing hands on Ebay for £200. And yet, around the same time in RSD-participating store Sister Ray, a single copy of much rarer Blur release – their 300-only 1993 gig freebie ‘The Wassailing Song’ lay untouched on the wall for a reasonable £75.

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Back at David’s, records by Stephen Malkmus, The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Velvet Underground, The Beta Band and Big Star are gone by the time I get there – but I secure Pulp’s ‘After You’, the seven-inch of two unreleased Paul Weller tracks and Low’s ‘In The Fishtank’ session with Dirty Three. No time to dwell on that though. I have to be at Phonica in Poland St to speak with Tom Ravenscroft for BBC 6 Music. From the exterior of the shop, you can see the massive HMV logo. Because HMV isn’t an independent record shop, it’s not allowed to participate in Record Store Day. From this vantage point – streets teeming with people scuttling between Berwick Street’s specialist indie stores – it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for the place, so far removed from its original purpose in 2013 that it wouldn’t occur to most people to buy a record there. Over to 6 Music in Western House to speak with Tom and Edith Bowman. Once we’re finished there, I leave the building and diagonally to my left I notice a Record Store Day banner draped outside a terraced townhouse on Langham Street. Just beside the buzzer is a sign that says, “ifmusic”. Up the steps and in the carpeted hallway are the pigeonholes of various offices and, among them, one that says: “ifmusic: 2nd floor.” Shops in places where you don’t normally find shops. Odd little rooms full of records. These are the sorts of things that collectors have dreams about. But up two flights of stairs is a room which thinks it’s a shop: a coffee table with two decks, and shelves and boxes full of records. “Are you here for Record Store Day?” I’m the only customer. On Record Store Day.

And the two blokes who work there – middle-aged, smart, dressed in a manner that suggests they have Gilles Peterson on speed-dial – are lovely. They’re more like tailors, sizing you up for a possible purchase – which could be a touch vexing, except for the fact that they’re incredibly good at it. He hands me a compilation I’ve never seen before called ‘Forge Your Own Chains: Heavy Psychedelic Ballads And Dirges 1968-1974’. And I’m thinking that I’m not sure I want anything heavy or dirgey on a day like this, but he places it on the turntable and an utterly celestial spell of sunkissed psych-rock – ‘Song Of A Sinner’ by Top Drawer obliterates all resistance. In my sleep-deprived state, with the sun streaming into a place that I’m not even sure exists, it all sounds divine: the stoned tidal funk that plays out under D.R.Hooker’s ‘Forge Your Own Chains’; the beatific motherly embrace of Ofege’s ‘It’s Not Easy’.

Yes, there’s a Record Store Day box too – and in there, I find a few more things that the Letchworth shop didn’t have: a repress of an Italian electronic instrumental album called ‘Desert’ by Antonio Vuolo and Elio Grande and a 12-inch of remixes by The XX. But, once again, the real magic doesn’t really come from what I was hoping to find. It’s the stuff I didn’t know existed. There’s an album by Oscar Brown Jr – who I knew through a track called ‘Gang Bang’ on a great Warners comp called ‘People Get Ready: Protest Songs From The Atlantic & Warner Jazz Vaults’. It’s a sublime flute-laden tale that details what happens when the urge to riot is superceded by the urge to fuck. So here’s ‘Movin’ On’ – the album that originally featured ‘Gang Bang’, and it’s £10. “Can I put this on?” I ask one of the ifmusic guys who may or may not exist. The qualities that make ‘Gang Bang’ so brilliant pervade almost every other song.

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Just one more stop now. Flashback Records on Essex Road have called to see if I fancy doing a DJ set as part of their Record Store Day festivities. I ask if they’d let me do a set of songs taken from their bargain boxes outside and they kindly agree. With five minutes to spare, I get there and amass my “set.” The tempo of the day has decelerated in the afternoon sun and the queues have dissipated to a trickle of curious shoppers. Most cheap records fall into one of two categories: the rubbish ones and the ones that are so brilliant that they sold millions and, as a result, are too abundant to be worth anything. I cue up ‘Precious’ by The Jam; ‘Legend Of Xanadu’ by Dave Dee Dozy Beaky Mick & Tich; ‘Rock The Boat’ by Hues Corporation; ‘Always On My Mind’ by Pet Shop Boys – the records you’ll always find in the kitchen at parties. Every one a winner; every one a pound. I’m sad that I didn’t locate the Stephen Malkmus record – yet, in terms of pure pleasure, I’ve long since got ten times more value out of my own copies of the records I played at Flashback. Probably a good time to regain that perspective. Not least because on this, of all days, perspective is as scarce as the very records that made you join a freezing queue in Letchworth at 5am.

Read more of Pete Paphides’ writing on his fabulous site ‘Hidden Tracks

February and March Reviews – Magnetic Fields, Michael Kiwanuka, Leonard Cohen, Field Music, Tindersticks, Mark Lanegan and more

FIELD MUSIC ‘Plumb’ (MEMPHIS INDUSTRIES)

After the extravagant sprawl of 2010’s double album ‘Measure‘, ‘Plumb‘ lasts for half the time, despite seeming to contain at least as many ideas and melodies across its thirty-five minute run time. Mere moments after tracks have got going they segue effortlessly into others, and while not as safe as Sir Thumbsaloft can sometimes be, it evokes at times the creative schizophrenia of early McCartney solo albums. ‘Choosing Sides‘, itself several songs in one, wails pleadingly: “I want a different idea of love which doesn’t involve treating somebody else like shit,” while ‘A Prelude To Pilgrim Street’ has a glorious drum workout, accompanied by Who-esque shimmering keys, which offers an affectionate nod to Keith Moon.

Plumb‘ cements Field Music’s reputation for truly magnificently crafted classic pop-rock, with an unashamed love of the grandiose soundscapes of the Seventies and a taste for adorning songs with neatly selected sounds from real life. The highly strung plastic-funk of ‘Is This The Picture?‘, all runaway drums and falsetto screech, serves an unlikely precursor to the string-laden, percussive swoon of ‘From Hide And Seek To Heartache‘. This paves the way for the a cappella burst of ‘How Many More Times?’ and near-instrumental orchestral flourish ‘Ce Soir‘. ‘Plumb‘ genuinely doesn’t sound like anything else being released right now, partly because it doesn’t even sound like itself for more than a few songs at a time. An exhilarating and ambitious collection, it should bring Field Music a deservedly larger audience at last.

It seems so very long ago now that I was playing this on repeat over the Christmas break, but it still very much holds up and I’d even consider being more effusive in my praise for this title, several months along. The purple vinyl pressing is an absolute delight, mastered to perfection, and the music is wondrous. The early solo Macca comparison is one I maintain rings true, and entirely topical with the imminent reissue of ‘Ram’.

LEONARD COHEN‘Old Ideas’ (COLUMBIA)

Eight years in the making, one might uncharitably say ‘Old Ideas’ is aptly titled, as little will surprise. However, that’s not to damn this gloriously produced and charmingly performed album. Mid-paced, soulful meditations are what we’ve come to expect from late-period Len and that is what we get, ‘The Darkness‘ and ‘Show Me The Place‘ as good as anything he’s done in several decades. ‘Amen’ isn’t far off being Tom Waits after a hot bath and a sit down, until the trademark syrupy backing vocals appear, while the thin, drum machine traits of old creep back in on ‘Lullaby‘. Still, plenty to get excited about.

New Cohen release and I get all of 105 words. Ah, what do you do? If you care about Len and don’t already know what this sounds like then I can’t imagine a pithy paragraph such as the one above is likely to change that state of affairs. I’ve not listened to it for a while, if I’m being brutally honest, but the vinyl pressing is cracking. It’s largely splendid and the tinny affectations of old are now almost out of his system.

MARK LANEGAN BAND – ‘Blues Funeral’ (4AD)

Possessing the finest album opener of recent times in the shudderingly malevolent ‘The Gravedigger’s Song‘, it would seem that the eight years since Lanegan last flew solo have provided the inspiration for songs of an astonishing calibre. This is a confident, bold and captivating record, and one which is dominated by that beguilingly ragged voice. Musical accompaniment includes turns from Josh Homme and Greg Dulli, with whom Lanegan previously worked as part of The Twilight Singers.

Gray Goes Black‘ picks up the electro touches from the opener and belies a penchant for Krautrock which puts in another appearance on the splendidly titled ‘Ode To Sad Disco‘. Having worked up some of these songs using keyboards and a drum machine rather than the guitar, ‘Blues Funeral’ possesses the fullest and most varied sound of his career to date.

When the guitars are foregrounded, Lanegan can still strut like the best: ‘Riot In My House‘ a particularly fine burst of energy. ‘Harborview Hospital’ is a curious collection of synth swirls and plodding drum loops, whilst tucked sombrely amongst the album’s louder moments is the melancholic ‘Phantasmagoria Blues‘.

Leviathan’, a squawly waltz, takes an unexpected turn towards the end when the repeated lyric “every day a prayer for what I never knew, this is one I said for you,” suddenly gains ‘Pet Sounds’ style harmonies, conjuring a sense of what Brian Wilson‘s more troubling moments may have sounded like in his head. In a good way, of course.

BUY THIS RECORD. Seriously. I still adore it. It’s a real headphones album and yet also one which will serve you well cranked up on the main system. Sharp writing and stunning delivery.

OF MONTREAL – ‘Paralytic Stalks’ (POLYVINYL)

After the studio pomp of 2010’s ‘False Priest’, Kevin Barnes retreated to his home once more and lost the gloss which raised eyebrows amongst some long-term fans.The results are largely excellent, with the usual explosion of restless melody at the fore. ‘Spiteful Intervention‘ sounds like a doo-wop Suede at the mercy of chronic moodswings, lyrically grim enough to warm the heart of every Magnetic Fields fan: “I made the one I love start crying tonight, and it felt good.” Squelchy-pop dominates, although the spun out fairground-gone-evil moments remain, most notably on closer ‘Authentic Pyrrhic Remission‘, leaving you wondering if your headphones have turned on you.

I think I like the idea of Of Montreal more than actually listening to the music. Which is not to say the music isn’t good, even intermittently excellent, but it does require a little…patience and a suspension of disbelief.

TINDERSTICKS‘The Something Rain’ (LUCKY DOG)

Opening with a nine-minute spoken word piece, with a neat sting in its tail, it’s immediately clear that this isn’t going to be a desperate stab for populism and huge sales. ‘Chocolate‘ has been described as a sequel to ‘My Sister‘, one of many highlights on their second album. And it’s somewhere between the passionate intensity of that classic record and the languid soul of their fifth studio outing, ‘Can Our Love…‘, that ‘The Something Rain‘ sits. Self-produced and with a grandiose sound borne out of recent performances of their many film scores, this represents their finest work since their return in 2008. Understated majesty.

Again, not an awful lot you can do with 105 words and an album like this. ‘The Something Rain’ has continued to grow on me in the intervening months and it really does stand up there with T2 as one of their finest efforts. Whereas ‘Falling Down A Mountain’ lost its charms over time, this latest effort feels truly substantial. It doesn’t give a toss what anybody else thinks and doesn’t expect to sell thousands upon thousands of copies. It’s there for you, dear Tindersticks fan. Don’t be rude, now.

MICHAEL KIWANUKA – ‘Home Again’ (MERCURY)

It’s rare that the hype surrounding an artist translates to genuinely wonderful music. Rare, but not impossible, as ‘Home Again’ proves. Warm, beautifully recorded vintage soul is the unashamed goal here and there are no weak links. The Bill Withers comparisons may seem a little grandiose but Kiwanuka possesses a quite phenomenal voice, which he flexes and curls around joyous moments such as ‘Tell Me A Tale‘ and ‘I’ll Get Along‘. With an acoustic undercurrent and sympathetic production from Paul Butler of The Bees, this is an absolute treat for fans of rootsy vintage soul and a remarkable statement of intent for a debut release.

You know how I generally come out in hives as a result of excessive hype? Well, that’s still largely the case – Alabama Shakes, anyone? – but on this occasion I was truly seduced. I love beautifully produced soul music. Sure, I adore my Motown boxsets and the like but that floral, intricate sound of Seventies soul is just about as euphoric as music can get. And, let me tell you, ‘Home Again’ deserves to be talked of in such circles. The novelty has not worn off. I haven’t found myself sobbing myself to sleep at night muttering “it should have been a six” and I’m still playing it regularly. Really regularly. The vinyl pressing is alright, though not as good as this album deserves. Just give yourself a chance to hear it. Several times. Then let me know how you get on.

CHOIR OF YOUNG BELIEVERS – ‘Rhine Gold’ (GHOSTLY INTERNATIONAL)

Haunting folk vocals with tricksy production and enormous ambition is not what you might call a revolutionary new idea for the music scene in early 2012. The cautious, unsettling way in which sounds seem to leak out of the speakers on album opener ‘The Third Time‘ is an effective way to draw the listener in, even if what follows is a little hit and miss. Studio gloss and sanitised drums too often leave things sounding a little safe, not least when compared with the truly wonderful glistening Krautrock chug of ten minute long album centrepiece ‘Paralyse‘. An album of that and they’d have me sold.

Honestly, ‘Paralyse’ shits on a lot of the new music released each week but also, sadly, a lot of the rest of its parent album. Worth seeking out that one, mind you.

THE MAGNETIC FIELDS – ‘Love At The Bottom Of The Sea’ (DOMINO)

After the dainty delights of 2010’s ‘Realism’ provoked a distinctly mixed response, ‘Love At The Bottom Of The Sea‘ finds The Magnetic Fields returning to their synth-pop roots. The lyrics are as sharp and malevolent as they’ve been in ages. Album opener ‘Your Girlfriend’s Face‘, concerning the hiring of a hitman, is blessed with the couplet “he will do his best to do his worst, after he’s messed up your girlfriend first.” ‘Andrew In Drag‘, meanwhile, has a radio smash chorus if not a radio smash title. The album’s fifteen songs all clock in under three minutes and the emphasis is on punchy, wonkily-melodic nuggets.

Ah, the electropop with moodswings and chronic flatulence is back and Stephin Merritt is beloved of the indie masses once more. ‘Andrew In Drag’ is still tremendous but there is much to love across this whole album. If you’ve ever loved them before then it’s time to give them another go and for those who’ve been there throughout the journey since ‘i’, I would imagine this will feel like a welcoming hug after a long, though largely enjoyable, walk on rough terrain.

DR. DOG – ‘Be The Void’ (ANTI)

Having pursued a smooth and soulful sound on 2010’s ‘Shame, Shame’ , the 2012 incarnation of Dr. Dog returns to their more customary shambling psychedelic pop approach, with hooks aplenty and a fondness for brash enthusiasm over studio polish. It’s largely endearing stuff and ‘Lonesome’ produces the instantly memorable hooky refrain “what does it take to be lonesome? Nothing at all,” which will serve as your new earworm for at least a week after initial exposure. ‘Do The Trick’ is a bouncy piano anthem, all swooning backing vocals and gentle lyrical clichés: “I count the days as they pass me by”, while ‘Over Here, Over There’ has a frenetic pop-punk pulse which could perfectly soundtrack the slightly inadequate walk of a hipster with their jeans half-way down their arse, but probably won’t win any song of the year awards. This slightly throwaway quality is what hinders ‘Be The Void’. While the impulsive nature of the recording undoubtedly leads to some fine moments of euphoric pop, the rough around the edges feel results in moments of filler, where a little more precision would have gone a long way. The diluted glam of ‘Warrior Man’ is crying out for a moment to send it into orbit, while album closer ‘Turning The Century’ comes across like an early Gomez b side, all muffled vocals and wanky sitar noodling. When they’re good, they are glorious and their enthusiasm is infectious, but there’s a little too much mediocre padding filling the, er, void.

Meh.

 


27. Rufus Wainwright–All Days Are Night: Songs For Lulu

Best of 2010This record proved to be a breath of fresh air after the overcooked swamp of a record that was ‘Release The Stars’. New converts will not be found, and I know how much he splits opinion even amongst you splendid folk, but those who’ve been in love before will be in love again. It’s a dense work which requires some love and attention but it gives but as much as it takes once you’re ensnared.

Rufus Wainwright

Never one to hide his emotions previously, here Wainwright offers a sparse but staggeringly heartfelt collection of songs for voice and piano, influenced, at least in part, by the long-term illness and recent passing of his mother. After experiments in bombast and imitating Judy Garland, this is all about the bare bones and, held against the aforementioned previous outing, the relative simplicity is very welcome. While three Shakespearean sonnets set to music are successful without being showy, Wainwright saves the very best till last. Lyrically, album closer ‘Zebulon’ is endearingly direct, “my mother’s in the hospital, my sister’s at the opera, I’m in love, but let’s not talk about it,” and home to his best vocal performance to date.

Having seen the live show which accompanied this album, which involved Wainwright performing the entire record in full, in order, with a request of no applause between songs, I actually found I loved it just a little bit more. The funereal procession with which he entered and exited the stage did make my soul itch a little but the overwhelming aura of grief, combined with no little sprinkle of pomposity, somehow ended up endearing the record to me even more rather than, to use modern parlance, ‘getting on my tits’. As I said at the start of this piece, do not approach this if you’ve already decided that you hate his voice, face or other specific parts of his anatomy. Your opinion will not be changed. But my, this is a bold record both in terms of what it sits alongside this year and also its bedfellows in Wainwright’s catalogue. A surprise triumph.