A Week With… 12. Teenage Fanclub – Songs From Northern Britain

jp aww 12

The sad news of the death of Alex Chilton last week sent me scurrying back to my Big Star records and the majesty of ‘Thirteen’, ‘I’m In Love With A Girl’ and ‘The Ballad Of El Goodo’ offered a welcome respite at the end of a tiring week. While the songs, and their parent albums, had more than a couple of plays, in amongst them was an album that unashamedly acknowledges its influences, confident in the knowledge that it’s good enough to stand tall in the exultant company of both Big Star and The Beatles. That album, as you may have guessed by this point, was ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ by Teenage Fanclub, a record which I’m increasingly certain belongs in my all time top ten, if not top five.

jp aww teenage fanclub

The luscious vocals, soaring guitars and heart-melting melodies of Big Star are here in abundance, but that’s not to say that this is simply an homage. ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ is an out and out pop masterpiece. There isn’t a song you’d want to lose, a track to wish away in anticipation of the next or a chorus devoid of a hook. This is pretty much the result of an attempt to calculate how to make utterly beguiling, suitably concise and indefatigably effervescent songs to soothe the soul. It never sounds old, hackneyed or clichéd and I can say, quite unashamedly, that every time I play this record it gives me an undeniable lift.

Start Again’ and ‘Ain’t That Enough’ form a bright, shiny, soaring opening salvo, doing an admirable job of setting out the album’s stall. If you don’t like jangle and exemplary harmonies then this is not the record for you.Having said that, if ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ doesn’t make you truly glad you have ears then I’m not sure I ever really want to know you. I’m not sure you can really feel. You poor person, you. ‘I Don’t Want Control Of You’, replete with early seconds of farm noise, slightly confused me as a single choice around the time when the album first appeared, seeming too laid back for an assault on the chart, but, in the context of the record, it’s a simple, affecting love song which would be the highlight of so many other records, but not this one. Not that that’s an easy title to give out.

‘Planets’, with its gleaming guitar part is essentially a live recording of wistful summer evening sunshine while ‘Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From’ is so utterly bare and heartfelt it may have a legitimate claim to being the best Teenage Fanclub song of all time, let alone best on the album. Essentially little more than a gentle strum with some lolloping drums and an occasional burst of restrained, lilting piano, ‘Your Love…’ seems to simple to be special, but don’t be fooled. Listen again and noticed the radiant if relatively muted organ notes serving as the song’s undercurrent, notice the slowly increasingly volume and presence of those trademark soaring guitar riffs and be rendered agog by what is almost an anti-crescendo when the track beautifully manoeuvres itself to a close.

And that’s all without mentioning the sublime Beatles-esque plonking piano of ‘Mount Everest’, the chiming splendour of ‘Take The Long Way Home’ and the unassumingly magical album closer, ‘Speed Of Light’. ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ is a truly special record from a truly special band. I make no apologies for having a second ‘A Week With…’ feature about them for two very good reasons. Firstly, it’s my blog so nur. Eloquently argued, no? Secondly, I genuinely don’t believe that enough people know about this spinetinglingly magnificent collection of music and, with their new album due to emerge at the end of May, it’ll do nobody any harm to get acquainted. I once saw copies of this record, boxed with their second best album, ‘Grand Prix’, selling at £3 in Fopp and considered buying the entire stock so as to give them to the uninitiated. Sadly, I didn’t, but I cannot urge you strongly enough to get yourself a copy. Feel free to come and hurl abuse my way should you, for whatever almost incomprehensible reason, find it not to your liking.

Quick Link for readers of The Guardian’s Website

If you’re clicking through to the site today from The Guardian’s website, as it seems many of you are, the 6 Music article to which they refer can be found quickly by clicking on the image below. Naturally, I’d be more than a little chuffed if you had a read of some of the other articles posted here, which include interviews with Gaz and Danny from Supergrass and up and coming indie act Tom Williams & The Boat and a countdown of Just Played’s 40 albums from The Noughties.

6music Link

(More frequent, if less well thought out, comments available by following Just Played on Twitter)

A Week With… 11. Supergrass – In It For The Money

JP aww 11

It’s not actually that difficult to spot why this record didn’t turn Supergrass into one of the nation’s biggest bands. Not because it’s not great, because it is, but because it’s a curious beast. Off the back of the out and out fun of ‘I Should Coco’, ‘In It For The Money’ was a textured, meticulously structured headfuck for plenty of young green people with nice, clean teeth. As ‘G-Song’ roars and flails its way to its conclusion towards the end of side 1, it’s hard to align the sound with the band responsible for ‘Alright’ and ‘Mansize Rooster’. The trick, I’m willing to suggest, is to use ‘Lenny’ as your reference point from the debut and then it starts to make a little more sense. That one, joyously noisy, cleverer than it seems, burst of incendiary indie explosives contains enough hints that this band were not only seriously capable, but also ridiculously astute in their building of sound.

grass money

In It For The Money’ is a wonderfully warm record, with noodly keyboards, twiddly bass parts and soaring guitar riffs that never go stale. It occurred to me this week that I hadn’t dusted down the vinyl of this one since upgrading the stylus a few months back, and once I’d picked it out again, it wasn’t going back in a hurry. The drifting drums and improvised guitar sounds across the end of ‘Sun Hits The Sky’ are amongst my favourite moments in indie-pop history. It’s a euphoric celebration of sound tacked on to an astoundingly tight chart smash. It probably shouldn’t be there, but that’s probably why it works so well. Sometimes you desperately want a bit more of your favourite songs and on occasions like this, it seems like a bloody good idea.

Going Out’, which appeared as a single almost a year ahead of the rest of the album, is a blistering start to side 2, somehow managing to combine a thin piano sound, swirling organ part and thundering guitars into an attacking force will leave you breathless. I never appreciated just how great this song was when it came out as a single. The bold, brassy sounds had a shade of Britpop about them and, forgive me for this, it felt a bit like it was trying too hard to fit in. I was staggeringly wide of the mark, but it took me a while to change my opinion. No such prevarication with the song that follows it, ‘It’s Not Me’, which is a track that should be used to demonstrate the sonic capabilities of shit-hot headphones. It’s a quite brilliantly arranged stereo soundscape which gently tickles every little corner of your ears, leaving me genuinely awestruck by the power of music.

All of this and I’ve not even mentioned two of the album’s vastly different but equally sublime singles. ‘Richard III’ prefaced the album and only served to emphasise the change in direction from ‘I Should Coco’. Short, sharp and bloody loud, it took a bit of getting used to and I remember thinking that it jarred a little alongside your average daytime fare on Radio 1 when it first appeared. Thirteen years later, it was clearly the perfect way to signal a notable gearshift ahead of the album proper as it took the core idea of a naggingly familiar melody, an ever-present tactic on the debut, and bulked out the sound without ever seeming bloated.

That this record is thirteen years old is actually quite staggering. While it no longer feels like a recent release, it doesn’t feel like something that belongs in the Nineties Museum along with Loaded, Menswear and TFI Friday. Indeed, ‘In It For The Money’ is the one Supergrass outing that can lay claim to being truly timeless. If you told me it was an early Seventies overlooked gem, I could believe it. ‘Diamond Hoo Ha’ is the closest they’ve come to putting out a sub-standard record, and even that has its redeeming features, but ‘In It For The Money’ ensures a very, very high watermark. Those who read the interview with Gaz and Danny on this blog a couple of weeks ago will remember the former’s comments about the forthcoming Supergrass album. “There are some amazing songs on there, songs that I can imagine playing in a vast stadium somewhere. I’m really, really pleased. This record began life as a sort of free for all; we were swapping around our instruments, keeping things fresh and spontaneous. It’s like our little ‘White Album’. It’s just been tightened up week after week in terms of making it into a record that’s really powerful. It’s not as rock and roll as ‘Diamond Hoo Ha’. I think it’s just a psychedelic record. ‘In It For The Money’ was quite a psychedelic record, and I think this is probably our most psychedelic record for a good few years. It’s hard to say exactly but it’s sounding wicked.” If it is even half as good as the album to which it has been compared, then I will be more than content. Here’s hoping.

A Week With… 10. Manic Street Preachers – This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours

JP AWW 10

Listening back to this album, the first thing that strikes me is how sensible it all sounds. I remember being truly fired up by this band as a teenager, leaping around at their concerts and feeling like no other band was able to communicate with me in such a direct way. I don’t really hear that now. I hear well produced, excellently performed and quite beautifully sung songs which hold plenty of memories for me. I’m not particularly setting out to criticise this record, but when you consider that this band recently released ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, even ‘Send Away The Tigers’ before that, it all seems a bit incongruous.

this is my truth

I won a competition to attend the album playback for this record at Cardiff Castle. I was plied with promotional goodies, ushered into a large room with plenty of cheesy local radio Dee-Jays who all ‘loved their work’ and, having heard what seemed to me like a pretty splendid record, suddenly found myself sitting at a table having a conversation with James Dean Bradfield about my home town. He’d once dated a girl from there, as it happened, and, while that information was of no great consequence to either of us at that particular moment, he proved himself to be a thoroughly nice bloke, keen to put me at ease. Looking back, it may well have been the fact that the longer he spent talking to me, the less time he had to chat with the local media types that spurred him on, but I’d think no less of him even if that were the case.

I still have numerous signed items from that evening, including an A4 lyric booklet for the album, something which contains some of the Wire’s best and worst work. ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ and ‘Black Dog On My Shoulder’ cover totally different topics but in similarly articulate ways but ‘S.Y.M.M.’ was simply never as good in reality as it may have seemed as an idea. For a start, the title was abbreviated, suggesting that the band already had some idea that it was more than a little toe-curling, but still pushed on regardless. Secondly, inspired though it is by the marvellous Cracker episode, ‘To Be A Somebody’, it never really seemed to know what it wanted to achieve and thus, as a result, it foundered on every level. Furthermore, it weakened what should have been a triumphant end to the album with the Richey Edwards tribute, ‘Nobody Loved You’.

There are some wonderful indie-pop moments on ‘This Is My Truth’, none moreso than ‘You Stole The Sun From My Heart’, to which I used to, if you’ll forgive the nineties parlance, pogo wildly. The computerised drumbeat (sampled from a pinball machine, if my knowledge of Manics trivia still serves me well) is a marvellously hooky way to begin the song and ebb and flow of verse and chorus is the work of a master musical craftsman. ‘You’re Tender and You’re Tired’ is an oft overlooked pop gem, with its plaintive piano and luscious, swooping backing vocal ‘ah-ahhhhhhs’ too often brushed aside as insubstantial. It has, at times, been my favourite song on the whole album, while live favourite ‘Tsunami’ is only saved from the ignominy of being my least favourite by the presence of the aforementioned ‘S.Y.M.M.’ It jangles and it chugs but it just feels so forced and I’ve never been truly convinced that the lyrics sit all the comfortably atop the musical accompaniment. Previous conversations have suggested that this might be one for the ‘irrational dislike’ pile, but I’ll not be swayed.

The Manics were in their imperial phase, riding high on the astronomical sales of ‘Everything Must Go’. ‘This Is My Truth’ is, to be absolutely fair, the logical next step. In the context of the horrible mish-mash that followed, ‘Know Your Enemy’, it seems to have aged reasonably gracefully. But it doesn’t entirely stack up. There’s plenty to enjoy on there, but it’s over-long, over-polished and, at times, over-wrought. Lop a few tracks off, chop a few tracks down and there’d be little to moan about. I listen to it fairly infrequently and spending a week with it has, in some ways, reminded me why. There are simply better Manics albums on my shelf if I want to listen to them. More urgent, more insistent, more shambolic records than this mass-market, adult-rock outing. It is, dare I say it, the Manics’ ‘nice’ album.

A Week With… 8. Midlake – The Courage Of Others

jp aww 08

Whereas ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’ knocked you back with a couple of killer tracks and let the rest of the record wash over you, gradually becoming endearingly familiar, ‘The Courage Of Others’ is a record which refuses to offer cheap thrills or quick hits. This is a record for the listener and the more listening you do, the more it reveals. I didn’t expect to be quite so taken with ‘The Courage Of Others’, but the mixed reviews had intrigued me, the last record had gently entertained me and there was a vinyl pressing available. It was always going to happen!

Midlake-The_Courage_of_Others

What wasn’t always going to happen was my subsequent gradual, helpless, fall under its spell. For a start, it’s a lovely, warm-sounding vinyl pressing so it got a second play soon after its first, enough to suggest that there were some lovely textures in these eleven songs. But, when I found myself making a fairly sombre, chilly train journey, not to mention the accompanying, even more sombre and even more chilly walk home, ‘The Courage Of Others’ provided the perfect soundtrack. The album sounded perfect for those forty five minutes and I’m starting to think that that’s exactly what this record is. Perfect. The quite magically understated vocals from Tim Smith convey the sense of a songwriter utterly embedded within his own music. I can understand why some feel that this represents a slight dip from ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’ and that things aren’t as lively as they should be, but it certainly isn’t how I feel about this absolutely spellbinding collection. I’m a sucker for voices that become part of the music itself – Jimi from Doves, Joni Mitchell, Thom Yorke – and this is why the more subdued delivery by Smith on ‘The Courage Of Others’ is very much to my liking. The bafflingly sniffy Pitchfork review actually suggested that Smith sounds uninterested in his own songs and detached, “delivering every line with the kind of passion you might reserve for courtesy calls.” I really, truly don’t hear this. To me, it suggests a singer positioned at the core of his music, working with the music rather than riding over the top it. It feels highly personal and as such showmanship is kept to a bare minimum. I honestly never got the sense that he was in anyway detached or disinterested.

The warning tone of the flute motif on ‘Rules, Ruling All Things’ is one of those relatively minor, subtle affectations that are all over most decent records, but it’s one that stood out to my ears and, as such, has becomes one of the focal points of this record. The power of such tiny moments captures the spirit of ‘The Courage Of Others’. This is, perhaps thankfully, not an album with such a distinctive aural signature like ‘Roscoe’. Despite listening to this album a lot this week,  I don’t find myself wandering around whistling or humming various songs from it. Having said that, there are now a good half a dozen or so little moments like that unsettling flute that act as anchors for this record, completely transfixing me each time they pass my ears.

Words like ‘pastoral’ get bandied around for music like this without further explanation, and ‘The Courage Of Others’ seems, more precisely, to be about the importance of nature. There’s a strong feeling of the emotional turmoil and sapping of the spirit sometimes evoked by the winter months. Attempting to engage with such heavy blankets of melancholy, hoping to stave off their often disturbingly consuming weight, is no mean feat and I feel like this album speaks from such experiences. “I will train my feet to go on with a joy, a joy I have yet to reach,” Smith intones on ‘Core Of Nature’ and irrespective of whether that’s what he meant at the time, it captures perfectly for me that hopeful belief that you can walk yourself out of the gloom, even if you’ve never quite managed it yet. The very fact that there’s plenty of things out there to tempt you into action, to spur you into movement, if you’re willing to do so, further reinforces that awkward no man’s land where you know what you should do but still that doesn’t do a thing to abate the feelings that stop you in your tracks. I may have misinterpreted that line, the whole song, the whole album, but whichever way you come at it, I still believe there’s an emotionally articulate core to this record which is at risk of being ignored due to the minor key music by which some seem unengaged.

The Courage Of Others’ is littered with lyrics open to interpretation but this is an album about the human condition and how nature accompanies, embellishes and shapes our responses to life. The music is complex yet unassuming. It doesn’t do bells and whistles, it just trusts you to come and find its glories. I’m sure that for many, this will mean a couple of cursory listens before being consigned to the shelf or some untouched folder on a hard drive. More fool those people for missing out, but then I can’t deny that I quite like the idea that my absolute and unremitting love for this album makes me part of a fairly small group who will cherish this quite fantastic record for many years to come. It already feels very much like it’s my record, and that only serves to reinforce that belief.

***

You can read another thoughtful piece on this remarkable album over on a new music blog, ‘Signals’, which is the brainchild of former teatunes-er, Dan. Click here to have a read.

2010 on the record

A Week With… 7. Massive Attack – 100th Window

JP AWW 07

The first issue of Word Magazine appeared in February 2003, visually arresting with its Nick Cave cover and little flap telling you more about the contents and seemingly an alternative take on music journalism. To a certain extent, it has remained true to that purpose, although it’s far less revolutionary than it thinks it is. Having said that, I suspect I will be a reader forever, even if quality control slips, as it was the esteemed organ in which I got my first shot at reviewing. Paul Du Noyer and Jude Rogers ensured that I was kept in a healthy supply of free CDs but never quite comfortable enough to presume I would automatically get in the next issue. After some three and a half years of reasonably regular column inches, I was quietly jettisoned without explanation. The range of reviewers slowly slimmed until the very latest issue of the now definite-article enhanced, and New Stateman aping (in shape, if not content) The Word hit the shops last week. Now, only the big five or six reviews are farmed out to their top writers, while the smaller reviews are all done in house. Amongst those few ‘big’ reviews this month, is a positive and wisely argued piece on the new Massive Attack album ‘Heligoland’. Why is this relevant? That first issue had much the same space dedicated to ‘100th Window’ by the very same band. It did a fine job of putting the album in context for me and, reading about another music fan’s struggle to get their head around the music, it helped me to get to grips with what was, essentially, an underwhelming release from an extraordinary band. The ever-engaging Andrew Harrison described the record as “difficult to get into, but hard to get out of too,” and I soon knew what he meant.

massive_attack-100th_window

I became strangely obsessed with ‘cracking’ this album. I was sure that my initial sense of it as something cold and uninviting was down to a lack of familiarity and that, if I made the effort, it would all soon slot into place. I spent numerous glum National Express journeys poring over those nine tracks, my decrepit CD walkman rarely having anything else for company. Listening to it now, it’s hard not to think of the, frankly shit, emotions associated with that period in my life. What also comes to mind though is the fact that I never reached a conclusion. I just stopped listening to it at some point and never really went back. I don’t remember deciding it was crap but I don’t remember deciding it wasn’t, either. It just dropped off the radar and sat on the shelf gathering dust.

Returning to ‘100th Window’ this week has been a chore. Knowing that they have since produced a record a truly wonderful as ‘Heligoland’ makes this whole period of Massive Attack’s history stick in the throat a little. The corrupted soul and rhythmic cunning of their new album makes the autistically insular paranoia of ‘100th Window’ seem so utterly benign that it takes a concerted effort just to make it through to the end.

Sinead O’Connor’s appearances can be discounted without much effort. ‘What Your Soul Sings’ and ‘A Prayer For England’ are horribly jarring, whiny and utterly lacking in character. Yes, she’s absolutely recognisable, but then so are Piers Morgan and chronic flatulence. Horace Andy attempts to polish a turd with ‘Everywhen’ and ‘Name Taken’ but then I couldn’t hum either of these back to you right now. The tracks on which 3D takes lead vocals are a mixed bag, ‘Butterfly Caught’ and ‘Future Proof’ standing tallest and actually meriting repeat listens, but, fuck me, there must be easier ways to keep your ears entertained. Piers Morgan with chronic flatulence, perhaps?

I am now actually more disparaging about this album as a result of ‘Heligoland’. At the time of its release, ‘100th Window’ was the Massive Attack album we’d been waiting five years for. It was our duty to train ourselves until we liked it. It wasn’t them, it was us. Except it wasn’t. It was a blip. It’s the soundtrack at a wake for a few motherboards and a failed attempt to graft on some much needed RAM.

Oh, and before anyone emails telling me I’ve screwed up, the picture above deliberately links to ‘Heligoland’. I wouldn’t want anyone to put themselves through ‘100th Window’ on my account.

A Week With… 6. Portishead – Dummy

jp aww06

The first thing that strikes me is how normal it sounds now. We’ve had ‘Third’, ‘Mezzanine’ and ‘The Drift’ since this album first appeared. What once seemed like claustrophobic malevolence on a whole new scale is now more likely to be regarded as simply some nifty production. Which, let’s not be unduly revisionist here, this album has in spades. ‘Dummy’ is still a wonderful listen and it has retained the power to be genuinely emotionally affecting. When that head rattling beat drops out briefly during ‘Strangers’ and you hear tiny elements of the horn refrain and get a real-time sense of the artist pausing for thought it still sounds just as fresh and, frankly, clever as it did the best part of sixteen years ago. Whether my critical faculties were sufficiently honed back then to notice the potential connotations of certain breakdowns, I can’t really say, but listening now it does feel like an album that has been stapled onto my life and which has essentially always been there.

Portishead-Dummy

It Could Be Sweet’ was typical, late-night This Life fare, and rewatching the whole lot recently I’ve noticed this album popping up more than most. It was how, for a couple of years at least, ‘Dummy’ came to be defined. It was the tasteful, trendy dinner-party album of choice. It was lauded all over the music press from the exuberant under-achievers at Melody Maker through to the professionally pensive types who wrote broadsheet reviews in the mid-nineties. Even now, this strikes me as slightly strange because I also remember some of the confusion that greeted this album. A regularly offered-up comment from Geoff Barrow perhaps summarises this most succinctly. “At the time, some people took ‘Dummy’ back to Woolworths because it had scratches on it – everyone thought that was odd when they first heard it.”

The fact that ‘Dummy’ didn’t entirely fit was what made it great. DJ Shadow’s ‘Entroducing’ was still a couple of years away and the UK was caught somewhere between Suede and Oasis as Portishead first asserted themselves as part of the music scene. We were four months on from the moment when Kurt Cobain famously proved that the lyrics to ‘Come As You Are’ truly were a lie and the emphasis was on pretty much anything lively. By the time their second album, ‘Portishead’, appeared, they were on the receiving end of some criticism for still sounding like, well, Portishead. A churlish response to a quite beautiful set of songs, surely? Ultimately, yes, but so utterly omnipresent had ‘Dummy’ become that almost everybody felt like they knew the band’s ‘sound’ by this point and so, an album that is the equal of this wonderful debut, was not quite as steeped in praise as it should have been. The subsequent ‘Roseland NYC Live’ record cast these songs on a grander scale and is an essential album in my book, containing in ‘Roads’ one of the finest examples of recorded silence I think I’ve ever heard. You’ll know what I mean next time you play it.

Speaking of ‘Roads’, there was no tailing off of quality on the second side of ‘Dummy’. ‘Numb’ continued the impressive run of intense, hard-edged beat-laden wails, while ‘Roads’ pushed an awful lot of people towards tears during their weaker moments. It is a truly classic song and a fine example of a band knowing when to go all-out and when to keep things very simple. The added strings and rippling guitar for the second verse are masterfully understated and the way in which the song never seems more than a second or two away from returning to the isolation of the stark and bristling piano refrain ensures a fine balance between hope and despair. It’s a song that sounds mesmerising taken on its own, but it’s absolutely flooring in the context of the rest of the record.

Pedestal’ is a track I feel I know less well than the rest of the record. Presumably this has something to do with it following the exceptional ‘Roads’ and my inability to move on immediately from that particular piece of music. Both ‘Pedestal’ and ‘Biscuit’ feature what might be described as intoxicated beats slurring their way across the tracks. This is emphasised on the latter of those two tracks by the repeated and slowed refrain, ‘I’ll never fall in love again’ sinking gradually into the music. Again, I suspect my mild amnesia regarding this small part of the album is further enhanced by the way it ends. Ok, so ‘Glory Box’ became the Portishead snapshot that got a bunk-up with every compilation in the land until sometime in the middle of 1996 and you heard it pretty much everywhere. Doesn’t stop it being great though, does it? With the benefit of time having passed it now sounds, quite simply, like a wonderfully dark soul song. As with so much of this record, it has its roots firmly planted in the smoulderingly wounded deep soul sounds of the late sixties and seventies. Forget the fondness for cleverly manipulated beats and intricately sewn samples and you’re left with a new take on old soul. And it’s pretty much perfect.

Things have never been simple when it comes to Portishead and writing from February 2010, a time when we all know that the band are even less prolific than Massive Attack, it’s still a little odd to think that there have only been two further studio albums since this phenomenal debut. ‘Third’ avoided all of the criticisms levelled at their second album by sounding unlike anything you’d actually heard before, bar industrial drilling equipment and nightmares, and was another fine addition to their minimal output. Hearing ‘Dummy’ again this week has been a real pleasure and it makes for an interesting listen shorn of all of the media associations it carried with it for so long.