A Week With… 19. I Am Kloot – Sky At Night

Oh, the aching sound of melancholy. Some voices just have it. Think Nick Drake, Jason Molina and Morrissey. To that list, let’s add John Bramwell, I Am Kloot’s songwriter and vocalist, who has found his form in the nick of time. Have drifted a little with ‘Gods And Monsters’ and ‘I Am Kloot Play Moolah Rouge’, good albums but lacking somehow, ‘Sky At Night’ is the exemplar record for this band. It’s the one you’d give to others to show why you liked them, it’s the one you’ll end up reaching for first from the shelf or scrolling to on the iPod. It’s accomplished, it’s precise and it sounds beautiful.

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While Bramwell’s voice is imbued with that melancholic charm, be careful not to write this lot of as miserablists. In a recent review, the frequently sniffy and awkward Andy Gill, suggested in The Independent that the pace of this record “rarely rises above funereal” which is, at best, disingenuous and, at worst, a plain lie, suggesting no great deal of time was spent with ‘Sky At Night’. Yup, some of these songs are slow but they are luxurious, meticulous and engrossing rather than sombre and plodding as that description might suggest.

Opening track and current single, ‘Northern Skies’, is perhaps not as magical as its near namesake, but it’s a clear sign that the wilderness years are over. Bramwell has always had a way with words and, following on from the charming “Where shall we go on that big black night? Shall we take the coast road back through our life?” in ‘Northern Skies’, we are given the cracking opening couplet of “Do you fancy a drink? I know a place called the brink” for second track ‘To The Brink’. The truly heartbreaking strings that follow underscore the tone of world-weary despair and it’s an enjoyably brave decision to deploy this quite magnificent song so early on.

There is a not un-Elbow like swell of unsettling and tense backing vocals during ‘Fingerprints’, further demonstrating that not a note will be wasted on ‘Sky At Night’. The whole record exudes a sense of being ‘just so’, a confidence borne of knowing you’ve made the best record of your career, both in terms of the songs themselves and the beguiling sonics. This is, in no small part down to Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Craig Potter, the man responsible for the sublime production of ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’, who both oversaw proceedings. ‘Lately’ is another accomplished gear-shifting piece, lurching between serene calm and all out theatrics, while ‘The Moon Is A Blind Eye’ is a fine example of a relatively sparse soundscape being slowly manipulated to great effect, angelic harmonies sweeping in accompanied by echoing drum rolls towards the song’s end. ‘It’s Just The Night’ is one of their very finest songs, sounding like a ludicrously indulgent cross between Richard Hawley, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. You’ll need to play it a few times just to absorb its majesty. The swoonsome gloss of ‘Coles Corner’ perfectly suits Bramwell’s languid yet emotive croon, its slow, raggedy delivery hinting at ‘Time Out Of Mind’ and ‘Love And Theft’ era Bobness.

2003 track ‘Proof’ makes a reappearance in a move that has confused a few people and, as part of an album of only ten tracks, it does seem a little cheeky although this new rendering sounds sublime. Furthermore, if this is to be the album which sells people on the band, offering a creative re-birth, then there’s no harm in having one of their best songs on it. But, tellingly, on this occasion it doesn’t stand out as a peak. Their game has been raised, their sound has been found and I Am Kloot are now playing for the win. It’s bloody heartening for those who were ensnared back in the days of 2001’s ‘Natural History’. I remember reviewing ‘B’, their outtakes and extra tracks collection from last year, and wondering what the hell was going on. Momentum having ebbed substantially with ‘Moolah Rouge’, I just couldn’t see how foisting odds and sods into the public arena made much sense. On reflection, it seems to have been a clearing of the decks, an end of a chapter and a metaphorical funeral for the old times. Momentum had faded, but it would seem it was only temporary.

Radiation’ seems to build towards an epic, Sixties-sounding conclusion but, rather cleverly, it hasn’t been sequenced at the end of the record, even if there is a not inconsiderable pause before ‘Same Shoes’, the actual closing track, shimmers into life. With wistful brass and a muted drum sound it’s a perfect way to end ‘Sky At Night’. It’s delicately crafted, beautifully sung and leaves you wanting more. This album may not suddenly elevate I Am Kloot to headline status but it’s a mission statement that deserves to be heard, a proud, defiant blast against general indifference and Bramwell’s best work to date.

2010 inverted

A Week With… 18. Ash – ‘A-Z Vol. 1’

You remember Ash, don’t you? ‘Girl From Mars’, ‘Oh Yeah’, ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Burn Baby Burn’? They had that wonderful singles album back in 2002, ‘Intergalactic Sonic 7”s’, which pretty much contained all of their essential moments. Washed up now though, aren’t they? That hideous over the top rawk album, ‘Meltdown’ and then ‘Twilight Of The Innocents’, which sold about twelve copies, pretty much consigned them to the bargain racks.

Some bits of the above are true, but the idea that they are washed up is, creatively at least, simply not correct. Those who follow Just Played’s occasionally illuminating Twitter feed will have noticed frequent tweets about recent material from Ash, released as part of their ‘A-Z Series’ of singles, which began back in October 2009. Although taster track ‘Return Of White Rabbit’ (included here, annoyingly, as the first track) was pleasant if unremarkable, as it was only £13 for a digital subscription – working out at 50p a track – I thought it seemed a pretty decent deal to me and I duly subscribed. The first track, ‘True Love 1980’, proved to be a confident opener and a quick way to reassure those who had taken the plunge that this was going to be worth it after all. Peppered with glittery electronic plink-plonkery, along with a nagging chorus and some of Tim’s best singing in some time, it was everything I wanted Ash to sound like. The rest of the series has done little to dent my enthusiasm.

Last month came the first of two compendium pieces, drawing together the initial half of the project, along with five bonus tracks and a splendidly assembled documentary, tracking the creation and promotion of the material. With an almost depressing sense of inevitability, I found myself pre-ordering a copy, despite having the vast majority of the music already. However, it is actually in this compilation format that I have truly grown to love the bulk of these songs.

The pure pop moments, ‘Arcadia’, ‘Pripyat’, ‘Space Shot’,’ ‘Neon’, ‘War With Me’ and the aforementioned ‘True Love 1980’, are, to my mind, some of the very best singles they have ever released. ‘Arcadia’ charges along at a frenetic pace, sounding unashamedly plastic and polished, while ‘Space Shot’ is dangerously addictive. Its melody line will loiter in your headspace for many hours after listening and the whole track is one of my favourite singles of the last few years – by anybody. ‘Pripyat’ deserves recognition for being not the first but the second Ash song to feature the word “citadel”. That and the fact it has a spangly, euphoric, air-puncher of a chorus. ‘War With Me’, with its sickly sweet croon from Tim and buffed up piano refrain, is about as far from most of ‘Nu-Clear Sounds’ and ‘Meltdown’ as the band have ever ventured. Still great though.

Occasionally, the quality lets up – ‘The Dead Disciples’ doesn’t really go anywhere and ‘Ichiban’ comes on like a pound-shop Muse, so ludicrously overblown is its introduction before descending into Green Day guitar clichés – but it does largely feel like a collection of splendid singles, rather than a bulk of material in which there are the usual couple of highlights. The frequent switching between all-out pop, emotive balladry and pulsing rock is hugely endearing, not least in the final trio of ‘Song Of Your Desire’, ‘Dionysian Urge’ and ‘War With Me’, the second of those three featuring a blistering riff to die for.

Presumably to encourage purchases such as mine, the compilation has some additional material appended to the main singles. ‘Coming Around Again’ is pleasant enough but ultimately belongs in the ‘bonus material’ world. The precocious thrash through two and a half minutes that is ‘The Creeps’ is well worth a listen, evoking the pure strut of early Ash. Essentially stillborn thanks to its piss-poor title, ‘CTRL-ALT-DEL’ goes nowhere, but then the album closer, ‘Do You Feel It?’ is another one out of the Tim Wheeler Croons For You drawer and, just as history has taught us, he’s bloody good at it, aided by an adventurously eighties pop ballad chorus before the audacious inclusion of an actual sax solo!

The subscription itself is well worth £13 – you’ll get every song released to date plus all future releases and bonus tracks – but you can’t go far wrong by shelling out to HMV right now, who are currently offering the CD (with bonus tracks, without DVD) compilation of ‘The A-Z Series’ for £4.99 delivered. For a band at risk of dying a creative death, this project has been a striking reincarnation and one entirely deserving of a wider audience.

2010 inverted

A Week With… 17. The National – High Violet

Never has the title of this feature been more accurate than with this particular record. It has completely dominated the musical landscape of the last seven days. And yet, despite all of this, I find myself unable to conjure the words to successfully articulate quite why I am so utterly besotted with this particular collection of eleven songs by a band I’ve previously liked, rather than loved. I’ve already consigned three abortive attempts at this review to the binary wasteland and I’d begun to think that it just wasn’t to be. But then last night things changed.

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A sprawling conversation had alighted on whether writing could truly convey thoughts, as sometimes we have the capacity to think, to feel, to experience without having the appropriate vocabulary on hand to adequately represent those particular moments in our lives. Although the original subject matter had been literature, it didn’t take me long to steer it towards the inevitable terrain of music and the example I found myself citing was this very album: ‘High Violet’. I’d been listening to it on the train en route last night, staring out wistfully at the rapidly changing sights before they retreated into the distance. It seemed so perfectly suited to that moment. But it had also seemed perfectly suited as an accompaniment to an early morning walk to my local sorting office last weekend, the propulsion of Bryan Devendorf’s drumming falling sweetly in line with my determined pace. Indeed, this record is seemingly the perfect soundtrack to life itself, for now at least. Having much to mull over at present and with a number of weeks to play out before any solace might be sought, it could well be that ‘High Violet’ is heading for that curious status of ‘record that defines a period in my life’, a title that is handed out so rarely that it’s hard to conceive of it being plausible barely a week after the album’s appearance. Perhaps that is why I can’t quite find the words right now – I don’t want to explain it, I don’t want to box it off, say “done” and move on to the next feature. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been truly head over heels with a record and it’s a feeling I’d like to last as long as possible because it’s an absolute joy.

But, if I carry on writing about not writing, I’m going to end up coming across as some sort of sub-Paul Morley twerp and that really isn’t my intention. This record is littered with slow-burning melodies that catch you unawares and then lay siege to your mind in five or six second loops for days on end. Initial listens might not convince you that you’re in the presence of greatness, but make an exception, for me. Try it a couple of times back to back, see which tracks start to dominate, which guitar refrains resonate with you and which moments of understated vocal performance really communicate a sense of paranoia, frustration or loss. Which is not to say that this is either a depressing album or an album in which one might wallow. Yes, Matt Berninger’s baritone hardly conjures images of rolling green fields and sunny evenings, but, as with the Tindersticks, this doesn’t automatically make for gloomy music. There are moments on ‘High Violet’ that are plain euphoric; I’ve found myself over-enthusiastically air-drumming to ‘Conversation 16’ and recent single ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, while the choruses of both ‘Anyone’s Ghost’ and ‘Afraid Of Anyone’, even despite the latter’s obviously bleak outlook, have restorative effects far beyond mere food and drink.

The cohesive nature of this album ensures that I can’t just hear one song from it; I need to hear them all. Ticking all of the boxes for a first track, ‘Terrible Love’ slowly builds from fuzzy uncertainty to layered enormity with true class and the washes of sound establish a fairly consistent approach for the subsequent ten tunes. The purple patch from ‘Afraid Of Anyone’ to ‘Conversation 16‘, comprising five songs in all, is as good a run of tracks on any release I’ve heard so far this year. Neil Hannon, guesting on this week’s Roundtable on 6 Music, commented on how The National sound unashamedly like The National and that, for all the influences and reference points across the album, they have a unique musical style. And he’s not wrong. The ultimate aim of this piece is to get you to explore that particular sound, to click on one of these YouTube videos or to launch the album in Spotify via the image above, so as to experience this quite remarkable record. There are many, many positive reviews out there if you’re after a very precise ‘it sounds like this’ or ‘this track’s better than that track’ kind of commentary (and yes I know that’s what I normally do and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it) but on this occasion I’m going to have to leave those conclusions up to you. Enjoy.

2010 inverted

A Week With… 16. Steve Mason – Boys Outside

Although much of this album has an insistent throb of one kind or another, it’s the delicate touches that really make it something special. The specks of acoustic guitar dotted through opening track, ‘Understand My Heart’ make my ears prick up each time they go past, despite the really rather magnificent piano shudder on which this fine tune is built dominating proceedings. By the time ‘Am I Just A Man’ has ushered in all kinds of favourable comparisons to prime Beta Band magic, it’s clear that Steve Mason’s ‘Boys Outside’ has the capacity to be one of the stand out releases of 2010. I truly cannot get enough of this record at the moment and, while including it in the ‘A Week With’ series betrays the original principles of the feature somewhat, this week in particular has found me playing it almost daily.

Steve Mason Boys Outside

Mason’s voice, pitched in an almost permanently resigned tone, has never sounded better than here, aided by some beautifully crafted songs. The slow-burning, rain on the horizon, brooding opening to ‘The Letter’ is a masterclass in restraint. When the chorus hits, the refrain of “could it be that you don’t love me?” is all the more heartbreaking for the sensitively deployed strings and solitary piano keys floating, spectre-like, in a great blanket of melancholy. It is one of many highlights on the first of Mason’s records to not find him hiding behind a pseudonym or concept. The honesty and openness runs right the way through the lyrics also.

Lost And Found’ has been around for a little while now, but loses none of its majesty in the context of the album. A further track with more than a fleeting echo of his former band, it’s another example of glacial piano floating across a drum pattern that wouldn’t be out of place on a laid back modern soul song. It makes for a forceful end to side one and, at the risk of becoming somewhat predictable, I have to urge you towards the vinyl pressing of this tremendous collection. The winding, twitching, roaming bass on some of these songs is beautifully rendered on the larger of the physical formats.

Steve Mason

I Let Her In’ is perhaps the most starkly brutal observation of a failed relationship on the record, with some hugely affecting lines. “I wake up every morning with a new broken heart” is almost sunny when put alongside “to the children that I never had, here is the love, I was your dad.” It’s a rock and roll cliché that the best music is born out of romantic trials and aching souls, but it’s a cliché that is given further credence by this spellbinding record. 

I remember being almost hypnotised by the vocals on initial plays of ‘Dr Baker’, one of the great, early Beta Band tracks. Something about that understated though epic, simple though enthralling vocal performance resonated with many when ‘The Three EPs’ first emerged. That same special feeling occurred when I first heard ‘All Come Down’, which contains a moment where Mason’s voice seems to actually head skywards, soaring quite magnificently across a shimmering, euphoric backdrop that can, in equal parts, make you grin deliriously and blub like an emotionally charged teenager.

The title track has a ridiculously simplistic chorus, built around the refrain “noise outside, boys outside” but it’s up there with ‘The Letter’ as one of the genuinely great songs on ‘Boys Outside’. The drums slowly gather momentum as things develop to an anticipated crescendo around a line telling us that “the things I’ve seen in my life will make you cry” only for the backdrop to fall away, leaving just the beat and Mason’s vocal to quietly, and serenely, bring things to a halt. ‘Hound On My Heel’ offers a hopeful wash of sound to round out the album, even if the lyrics would give the manager of Hallmark a coronary.

If the ramshackle musical collage of the King Biscuit Time project didn’t quite convince you or the squelching dance tones of Black Affair weren’t quite what you were expecting, don’t allow any such dislikes to cloud your judgement when it comes to this record. Whether you were a fan of The Beta Band or not is largely irrelevant. Put simply, if you’re a fan of music, then you really should investigate this outstanding album.

2010 inverted

A Week With… 15. Blur – Fool’s Day

Setting out a little before seven in the morning seemed a relatively minor undertaking considering the prize that was there for the taking. The week beforehand had witnessed a military operation involving communication with a number of potential suppliers. The final decision had been left until the Friday once quantities had been confirmed. Seven years on from the band’s last album and almost ten since their last single as a four piece, Blur had reunited to record and release a new song.

And so I found myself stood outside a record shop at ten to eight on a not especially warm April morning, reading ‘Love And Poison’, a book about Suede, and listening to the new Ed Harcourt album on the increasingly erratic iPod. This, I can now confirm, is a way of ensuring more than a couple of odd looks from passers-by. Having strategically chosen a shop less likely to have an enormous queue from the early hours of the morning, it meant I was the solitary oddball standing in the doorway of a quite demonstrably closed shop. The staff started to arrive around forty minutes prior to opening and engaged me in a brief chat about what I was after. With twenty minutes to go, I’m advised to head over to the other entrance to the shop, via the city’s gigantic shopping centre, as it’s the door they’ll open first, it’ll be a little warmer for me and because there was another lady waiting there. It was said in a friendly fashion and so I was almost entirely not paranoid about making the switch. Still, I couldn’t breathe easy until the shutters were up and the record was in my hands. They had two copies. My partner in queuing, who was, quite impressively, even more anxious than me, had also established this fact in advance and, as the clock ticked past nine, our pawing at the shutters grew ever more rabid. Finally, some hundred and eighty seconds later, the shop declared itself open for business and the two rabid Blur fans were rewarded. ‘Fool’s Day’ was mine!

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It’s two weeks on from that rather surreal day, one of the most memorable record shopping trips I’ve ever had, and I am happy to say that the thrill of the chase is minor when put alongside the thrill of the music. ‘Fool’s Day’ is a marvellous pop track, shambling along like a frivolous The Good, The Bad & The Queen track, with faint echoes of the wonder of the ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ period. Lyrically, it’s a song about itself, with Damon recounting his day, en route to the studio. While acknowledging the potential pitfalls of reconvening, the euphoric tone which pervades this track makes me grin like an imbecile. Talk of walking past “the pound shop Woolworths” is one of my preferred lyrics, capturing the peculiar melancholy I still feel every time I see a defunt, or even bargain shop rebranded, branch of the store where so many of us bought our first records. There are many more impressive lyrics than that, but I’m almost tempted to argue that they are largely overshadowed by Graham’s magical guitar break. It ain’t complex, it ain’t clever but it’s pretty much bloody perfect.

I had resigned myself to the fact that last year’s reunion tour was the end of something, finally putting to bed previously unfinished business. Watching ‘No Distance Left To Run’ and listening to Damon in recent interviews to promote the Gorillaz album, it really did seem like there was no point even clinging on to desperate hopes of more from the band that mean so much to so many. But there I was, in Avalanche Records in Glasgow, just over a week before Record Store Day took place, being told by the shop’s staff that there would be a new Blur 7” in eights days’ time. In light of the song’s quality and subsequent comments from Damon that recording one off songs in the future is not something to which he’s averse, all bets are off and I’m clinging on to hope.

As I type, ‘Live At Hyde Park’, the bonus disc with the ‘No Distance Left To Run’ DVD, is playing and hugely fond memories of a sweaty night in Wolverhampton last June are being revived. They were, are, a magnificent band and those reunion performances were genuinely mesmerising events. The interplay between Damon and Graham on stage is thrilling to see while the reaction of the crowd only serves to underline how seismically important they were within the British music scene in the nineties. Even reprobates like ‘Country House’ sound worldbeating in this context, while genuine classics like ‘Beetlebum’ and ‘The Universal’ will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. We all know about the ‘Tender’ singalongs now, but the band themselves admitted some surprise at just how well received it was, prompting gargantuan audience participation at every gig and, most famously, at Glastonbury. Clips from that performance appear in ‘No Distance Left To Run’, the documentary film which manages to strike the perfect balance between old and new, splicing together archive footage and recent live material to great effect.

For what must now be getting on for the fifth or sixth time in less than eighteen months, ‘Fool’s Day’ made me fall in love with Blur all over again and they’re probably now as consistent a part of my regular listening as they were fifteen years ago. Some reactions to this sole new track have been rather sniffy, but I think it helps to keep in mind that it was written, record and released with a couple of weeks and is only a single by virtue of being a special release for Record Store Day. It’s not the lead track from a new album, it’s not being held up as a triumphant statement of intent. It’s a show of support for a beleaguered industry, a tantalising glimpse for the fans and, I would posit, a quick way of establishing likely interest in any new material. But, despite all of this, it still turned out to be a sodding splendid little tune. Having been available as a free (and lossless, if you so desire) download once the physical singles were long gone, it will provide a very clear guide to just how many people want new music from Blur. I would hazard a guess that the number of downloads is none too shabby.

Whatever may yet appear, 2010 has been graced by two of the most exciting Blur products in some time. The DVD set is one of the most meticulously produced and out-and-out entertaining music video offerings I’ve ever encountered and, unlike so many of them, is perfectly suited to repeat viewings. Despite being almost a year on from the first of the reunion gigs, there’s still something genuinely magical about watching the four of them performing together again after all of the animosity, false starts and side-projects that seemed to have consigned the band to the annals of history. Clearly, it’s not worth £250 on eBay, but I’m so very glad to have my own physical copy of ‘Fool’s Day’. Quite apart from being an important addition to a sizeable collection, it is testament to a band returning as strong as it ever was, thrilling crowds nationwide and falling in love with music and each other again.

2010 inverted

A Week With… 14. Suede – Coming Up

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It all sounds rather tinny these days. Still absolutely fucking glorious, but pretty tinny. At the time it sounded vital: stirring music for indie outsiders, the length and breadth of the country. ‘Coming Up’ can never match ‘Suede’ or ‘Dog Man Star’ for atmosphere, songcraft and so many other things but then those two records can’t match ‘Coming Up’ for its thoroughly dirty, unashamedly trashy fixation with decadent living in the nineties. It celebrates not fitting in, not doing the right thing and not giving a shit. It is one of the most confident sounding records I own and it couldn’t really have been released at any other time than the summer of 1996.

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Suede are back now and garnering the rave reviews that pretty much nobody was willing to give them around the time they originally decided to pack it all in, back in 2003. The only time I’ve ever actually seen them live was the tour supporting their last album, ‘A New Morning’, which represented the death throes of a once great band. Having developed a monumental crush on Gemma Hayes, across the duration of her all-too-brief support set, I was even less receptive than I may have otherwise been to Brett Anderson’s dispiriting angry, bitter man routine. I’ve never seen a frontman so completely propelled by seeming disgust and it only served to set the tone for the night.

Despite all of this, I actually rather liked their final outing, and had bought tickets off the back of it, rather than hoping for a nostalgia trip. And yet, left baffled by an almost self-parodying performance it was the irresistible high of ‘Beautiful Ones’ which really connected that night and brought back memories of buying both CD singles so as to complete my ‘collector’s wallet’, right off the back of the CD single of ‘Trash’ having contained a poster of Brett’s handwritten lyrics to that enormous track. Indeed, while subject of much mirth and fairly constant ridicule, it’s Anderson’s lyrics that provided my route back to Suede recently with the publication of ‘The Words Of Brett Anderson’, a signed, miniature hardback book collecting the vast majority of his lyrics from the past eighteen years. It’s a delightful little title and, while there are still moments that make you want to stab your own eyes out to spare your brain any further suffering (“And she’s as similar as you can get, to the shape of a cigarette” anyone?) there are plenty of examples to evoke genuinely fond memories of Anderson and Suede in their pomp. I’ve always adored the heartfelt simplicity of the closing track on ‘Coming Up’, ‘Saturday Night’. “Tonight, we’ll go drinking, we’ll do silly things, and never let the winter in. And it’ll be okay, like everyone says, it’ll be alright and ever so nice.” While hardly groundbreaking, it paints a pretty vivid picture for me and, coupled with a perfectly measured musical backdrop, it is one of my very favourite songs by this quite spectacular band.

The nineties indie-glam swagger of tracks like ‘Filmstar’, ‘Trash’ and ‘She’ are neatly counterbalanced by the epic crooners like ‘Picnic By The Motorway’, ‘The Chemistry Between Us’ and the aforementioned ‘Saturday Night’. One of the band’s best b-sides also dates from the ‘Coming Up’ era. ‘Another No One’, which appeared as back up to ‘Trash’ but which has since become more readily available via the compilation, ‘Sci-Fi Lullabies’, is a stark, stirring and pretty pissed off account of the end of a relationship. If you’ve never had the pleasure, allow me…

Listening back to ‘Coming Up’ now, it sounds very much of a time, without sounding particularly dated. Though that may sound contradictory, I would argue that although it richly evokes a particular moment in time, bringing back vivid cultural and personal memories, it hasn’t become jaded by that association. It doesn’t sound like it’s not fit for purpose in 2010. The reviews that have greeted their recent live comeback would seem to suggest that they’ve all still got it, even if the record buying public decreed eight years ago that that wasn’t actually the case. Spend a little time revisiting whatever Suede you have in your collection and see if their charm is still alive for you; it’s been a strangely invigorating experience for me.

A Week With… 13. Big Star

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You know that feeling when you become completely and utterly obsessed with an artist? You track down every little detail, attempt to get hold of the rarest of releases and even, if you’re me, find yourself buying multiple biographies in the hope of somehow further enhancing that irresistible buzz. You arrive at this point from any one of numerous reasons known to prompt such an outbreak of hysteria and teenage style fandom. On this occasion, it was the sad news of the passing of Alex Chilton.

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Last week, I wrote about how this initially sent me scampering towards prime Teenage Fanclub, a band oh so very heavily indebted to Chilton’s band, Big Star. However, after doing a little reading and digging out a few items from the shelves, it’s been all things Big Star this week.

I should say now that I’m not writing this for the Big Star aficionados of this world. They will likely think me a gibbering brain dribbler based on my current depth of understanding of this quite magnificent group. This is for those of you who haven’t really given the band any of your time in the past or who simply haven’t really heard of them before. The crux of my message is: you need Big Star in your life. If you’re weak-willed and easily led and that has already done the trick, off you go and order the records now. Should you need a little more convincing, read on.

To be assured of musical greatness, you really need to have a couple of songs which make the alternative music world swoon. Too popular? Fear the backlash. Too obscure? Nobody can buy your bloody records. In fact, it took until the early nineties for Big Star’s albums to be anything like readily available again after their initial shelf life in the early seventies. Those reissues came about due to said alternative types swooning over some of the finest power pop music ever pressed to wax and while they came to it late, thank fuck they got there in the end.

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The ‘couple of songs’ which make Big Star essential? Well, firstly, it’s got to be four actually and, secondly, you should really just buy all the albums and get going. ‘Thirteen’ and ‘The Ballad Of El Goodo’ from their debut, ‘#1 Record’, along with ‘September Gurls’ and ‘I’m In Love With A Girl’ from ‘Radio City’, would make up my Big Star primer EP. Two janglers, two acoustic heart-melters, this quarter of brilliance are, arguably, all songs which no self-respecting music fan should be without.

‘Thirteen’ recounts the beautifully observed feelings and experiences of being that particular age, expertly capturing the absurdly real fashion in which we amplified the trivial and lived in the, albeit adolescently awkward, moment. ‘I’m In Love With A Girl’ pretty much does what it says on the tin. It is all the more effective as a result of its simple structure and purposeful brevity. Its breezy excitement about the power of human emotions is fabulously infectious and I’m not sure that there’s a better sub-two minutes song in the world. ‘The Ballad Of El Goodo’ is the blueprint for about a third of Teenage Fanclub’s output (and, if I’m being ever so slightly disingenuous about one of my favourite bands, ‘In The Street’ accounts for close to another third) and is ludicrously good for the second track on a band’s debut album. ‘September Gurls’ is a summer song in the same way that Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’ is a winter song. Think of hazy sunshine and the last of the drawn out days so prevalent in the titular month and that’s what this song sounds like. It’s the sound of looking out over open fields, stillness in the air, a cold beverage of your choice in your hand and not a care in the world in your head.

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I have, thus far, not commented on the band’s third album, variably titled ‘3rd’, ‘Sisters/Lovers’ or ‘Third/ Sisters Lovers’, which was never properly finished, emerged six years after the group stopped working on it and is widely regarded as NOT the place to start with Big Star. That’s not to say it’s not worth your time, or quids. A sprawling, audibly unpolished set, it still contains some enchanting tunes. The concise, breezy jangle is less conspicuous however, and, to carry on the Teenage Fanclub references, it’s a bit like how every time the latter band release a new album these days, loads of people hope that it’ll contain some of the fully upbeat number last really attempted on ‘Grand Prix’ or ‘Songs From Northern Britain’. The fact is, they’ve been there and done that. Similarly, Big Star’s third record is a fairly logical progression, in the same way that ‘Radio City’ followed on from ‘#1 Record’.

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Last year’s superlative box set, ‘Keep An Eye On The Sky’, is an absolute feast for the ears with remarkably decent sound for a modern mastering job, alongside delightful packaging and a robust bit of writing in the accompanying booklet. While there’s much to take in, once the three albums have taken hold this box is absolutely the way to go. For now, in order to gain my additional fix, I’m juggling Rob Jovanovic’s biography of the band and Bruce Eaton’s 33 1/3 tome on ‘Radio City’. Chronic typos aside, the latter text features some hugely engaging recent interview material, particularly an extensive chat with Alex Chilton, while the former is the accepted (and pretty much only) overall guide to their music. There’s plenty to take in and much to love. The reaction provoked by the news of Chilton’s death demonstrates how much of an influence he had on many of today’s musicians and, in the hope of discovering the silver lining for this one, it should at least cause more people to discover some wonderful, wonderful music.