BEST OF 2015: 7. John Grant ‘Grey Tickles and Black Pressure’

Ever since the dawning of the CD era encouraged artists to fill up all available space in the same way that all-you-can-eat buffets bring out a curiously competitive dark side in the best of us, the chance of encountering a lengthy album that breezes past tantalisingly and compels us to instantly go again has been slim. Despite clocking in at almost an hour, ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ is one such uncommonly striking release.

JG

The album is bookended by a variety of voices intoning a quotation from Corinthians about the many virtues of love, the initial outing eventually exploding into an electronic squall that serves to underline how unconvincing Grant found that message. A moment of pause is provided before the remarkable title track begins the convincing case for its creator being considered one of our greatest modern lyricists. Black humour, sharp observation and a playful but meticulous knack with words, surely aided by his capacity as a multi-linguist, make ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ a record which satisfies on every level. What lies between those two biblical markers is one man’s experience of relationships, told in acerbically honest fashion.

In many ways this is a more bolshy take on the split sonic palette explored on 2013’s ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, although the rich electro bursts are far more integrated this time and the fluctuating approach is entrancing. Wit and wisdom inform the lyrics, with self-deprecation carved out as an eloquent art form. Grant’s striking, compelling honesty has been a hallmark of his solo releases to date and the album’s title track doesn’t hold back. Essentially a warning against self-pity from a man adjusting to life after an HIV diagnosis, he ranges across numerous moments of frustration only to reproach himself on one of the less radio friendly bridges in the history of songwriting: “but there are children who have cancer, so all bets are off.”

The album is a bold, idiosyncratic collection of songs crafted under intense time pressure after producer John Congleton insisted that Grant have all of the material ready to go before entering the studio. Such a challenge certainly seems to have focused the mind and, while ‘Queen Of Denmark’ and ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ both built up to dramatic showpieces, the consistent stature of all of these songs even in their early days is remarkable. The engagingly whole-hearted funk of ‘Snug Slacks’ is knowingly sleazy and truly hilarious. It’s yet another new angle for him to explore, but the many stylistic shifts are bizarrely smooth because of the true enormity of Grant’s presence. The writhing squelch of ‘Voodoo Doll’ is similarly captivating, recounting an attempt to convey positive feelings to a beleaguered friend caught under the grey clouds of depression.

Despite a title combining the Icelandic for a mid-life crisis and a Turkish phrase for a nightmare, this is his most brash record to date, with even the slower-paced songs some distance from being described as a lull in proceedings. While the lyrics may be a little less directly addressed, they are no less visceral and ‘You And Him’ repeatedly mentions both Hitler and Pol Pot en route to a line that could sound crass or lightweight, but in context is ridiculously joyous: “You think you’re super special but you’re just a big twat.” The song punctures the pomposity of morally bankrupt corporations and thuggish bigots in one fell swoop.

Grant has spoken fondly of the contribution of Bobby Sparks, a keyboard player brought in to add layers to the record, and the pop polish on some of the tracks builds on the hints towards that direction found on his last album. ‘Disappointing’ is a five-minute disco strut which lays waste to all previous sources of pleasure in deference to a new romantic interest. The addition of Tracey Thorn’s warmly evocative voice as it ascends to somewhere rather magical makes this one of several emphatic highlights.

The contrasting approach of ‘Down Here’ is no less spectacular, with a composed, spacious, acoustic-driven arrangement used to explore the vagaries of a love contorted out of shape. A similar pace is pursued on ‘No More Tangles’, which offers far more hope as Grant looks to distance himself from damaging relationships of old through an unconventional figurative co-opting of a shampoo strapline. It was one of four songs on the record debuted during his shows with the Royal Northern Sinfonia last year and its opulent arrangements capture some of the portentous energy witnessed by those lucky enough to witness the collaboration.

Having found happiness in recent times in the sanctuary of Iceland, the channelling of varyingly brutal past experiences through these lyrics suggests that John Grant is far from comfortable writing about brighter times, at least for now. Wherever he may veer next, ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ finds him in quite remarkable form.

BEST OF 2013: 2. John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts

On the several occasions I had seen John Grant perform prior to the release of this second solo outing, he had always cut an awkward and intense figure onstage, but one possessing a brutal knack for self-deprecating connections with an audience. A select number of artists have a genuine pull of their own, a force that draws you in and lays siege to your soul. You root for them, smile at the sight of them, find yourself savouring every second of their songs, hanging on the last waves of reverb emanating from a final note before unleashing applause. In short, you spend ninety minutes grinning like a twat and never once wonder what the time is or consider how tired you are.

Grant is, for me at least, one of those artists, and I approached ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ with a little trepidation, worried about the impact of my own expectations after the remarkable solo debut, ‘Queen Of Denmark’, had proved to be my favourite album of 2010. Having been teased publicly via its title track, it was clear that this wouldn’t simply be more of the same. The bubbling six minutes of minimalist electronica and synth trumpets were a defiant way to follow up a record lauded for its Seventies-inspired singer-songwriter chops. Naturally, the always rational and considered internet community sprung into action and the album was written off in some corners before it had even had a chance to be illegally leaked for a little voyeuristic backlash porn. That uncertainty and unease which seems to have been prompted by the varied sounds of this release is easily allayed after a few listens and I now find myself, almost exactly twelve months down the line from my first listen on the very first day of this year, increasingly of the opinion that ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ is superior to that remarkable debut. A wildly different and yet reassuringly familiar beast, it possesses some truly wondrous lyrics and a sizeable portion of melody.

By the time Grant appeared at Komedia in Bath, as part of the promotion for this album, his stage presence seemed to have grown. No longer peering out to see if the world would be bothered, he stood before a rapt audience safe in the knowledge that everyone in the room was in the know. Deploying several of the record’s more electronic songs early on, with accompanying rave lights and shuddering bass, the triumph was assured twenty minutes in. Any doubts one might have about tinkering with a winning formula can be easily dispelled by actually listening to this album.

The lingering presence of lost love TC, who had more than his fair share of influence on the debut’s lyrical content, is noticeable across proceedings, although the mood seems rather more sour, not least on the gloriously venomous ‘Black Belt’. This track also neatly demonstrates the middle of the ‘Queen Of Denmark/Pale Green Ghosts’ venn diagram. After some unexpectedly productive collaboration with Biggi Veira from electronic act Gus Gus, Grant was compelled to record the entire album in Veira’s native Iceland, despite having been planning to resume proceedings with Midlake back in Denton, Texas. It’s hard to imagine how a track like ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’ might have worked in such circumstances, ending up as it did sounding like a gloriously sardonic LCD Soundsystem.

When I wrote my sizeable justification for ‘Queen Of Denmark’ topping my 2010 list, I quoted the entire lyric to its title track as evidence of the quite stunning grasp of language Grant possesses and the way in which he can balance the rawest of emotions with the most knowing of smirks. It wouldn’t be difficult to pull a similar stunt in relation to this record and I have found myself unable to shake lyrics from several of the album’s highpoints. Chief amongst them has been this measured but explosive chorus from ‘Vietnam’:

“Your silence is a weapon,

it’s like a nuclear bomb.

It’s like the Agent Orange

they used to use in Vietnam,

and it’s accompanied by an apathy

which is deafening to the ears.

You know it is complete and perfect

and you wield it without fear”

Add in the raw majesty of ‘I Hate This Town’, ‘Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore’ and ‘Glacier’ and you’ll feel like sobbing for him. Except you don’t. There is a strange euphoria at the heart of ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ which is intrinsically linked to Grant’s humility and humour. The wry and biting lyrical content is capable of rendering you occasionally speechless in delight at exactly what he’s just pulled off, and such a knack for communication and ruthless honesty resulted in him telling the crowd at a Hercules & Love Affair gig, where he was guesting last summer, that he is HIV positive. ‘Ernest Borgnine’ tackles this topic exactly as you might imagine he would: “Doc ain’t lookin’ at me, he says I got the disease. Now what did you expect, you spent your life on your knees.” Although this diagnosis received column inches for pretty much all of the promotion of the album, it had a relatively small impact upon the material. Indeed, it’s those two other initials which still seem more determined recipients of Grant’s venom.

These songs are still as utterly captivating as the year comes to a close as they were at its start. They have mutated in various directions since their release, through live performance, remix and collaboration. The deluxe CD set featured a wondrous remix of the title track by No Ceremony which hijacks the horn riff and adds extra helpings of doom and ominous bass, while several EPs which have snuck out as companion pieces have refitted the songs in various, but no less affecting, ways. ‘The Strongroom EP’ stripped back a selection of the material to its bare bones, and may be of use to those struggling to make the leap between the styles. It highlights the true brilliance of Grant’s songwriting as these melodies hold their own when they are free of any dressing, something which was also underlined by the recently released ‘Gets Schooled EP’. A five track set, it features duets on four highlights from ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ and a cover of Abba‘s ‘My Love My Life’ performed with Villagers. The highlight is a surprisingly moving reading of ‘Glacier’ with Sinead O’Connor, who had previously put in an appearance in the background of the album itself. I don’t often buy into spin-offs and bonus discs, but this unique suite of songs deserves every last bit of the attention being lavished upon it.

Making one truly remarkable record in your career is no mean feat. Plenty of artists never get close. But making more than one really sets you apart and, with ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, John Grant has done just that. While his solo debut seemed to be something of a slow-burner, this follow up has had plenty of entirely justified coverage and was sufficiently ubiquitous in the end of year lists to even earn a place in Vice‘s annual spoof countdown. Don’t let that put you off, though. That he is now acknowledged as a remarkable talent is how it should be. This is very much not ‘Queen Of Den-mark II, but in its scope, ambition, songwriting, emotional impact, humour and sense of melody it is, at the very least, that debut’s equal.

Bloody Awful Poetry – The Importance Of Lyrics

I’ve never really been a lyrics person. The melodies are what bring this boy to the yard. Even tiny moments where a piano puts in a brief appearance thirty seconds from the end of a song or when two voices combine to momentarily melt my innards tend to take precedence over a witty couplet or a heartfelt character assassination. Which is not to say I don’t appreciate fine word-smithery, more that it’s something I gradually acknowledge as the music becomes familiar. Whilst writing about John Grant‘s new album recently, it occurred to me that much of his coruscating honesty had already registered. So, am I paying more attention to artists whose lyrics I know I enjoy, in the same way I try not to listen too carefully to others, or do well-crafted words leap out at you uninvited?

These thoughts were prompted whilst finally reading Paul Whitelaw’s excellent biography of Belle & Sebastian which has unfairly sat on various shelves for several years. The author explores the time when Stuart Murdoch and Isobel Campbell’s relationship hit the skids and the latter prepared for an exit from the band she’d once loved. Having been portrayed as something of a pushover, accommodating Campbell’s numerous whims, Murdoch finally snaps and pours out his angry heart into several brutal lyrics: lyrics to songs on which Campbell actually performs. ‘I’m Waking Up To Us’ juxtaposes a typically jaunty melody with this blunt assessment, “You like yourself and you like men to kiss your arse, expensive clothes; please stop me there. I think I’m waking up to us: we’re a disaster.” I’ve listened to that song plenty of times and noted the acerbic tones in passing, but never before had I really stopped and processed the cumulative sense of bereavement and bitterness in that lyric.

Waking Up

Click the images or scroll down for a Spotify playlist linked to this piece

When a lyric clicks – whether on first or fiftieth play – I tend to cling to a perfectly quotable line or two, keenly anticipating their arrival whenever I hear the song in full thereafter. This, of course, is once again slightly missing the point. The subsequent explanation in ‘I’m Waking Up To Us’ softens the blows somewhat, but for me a well chosen couplet functions much like a musical hook: a euphoric moment in a track which sets my brain alight.

There are plenty of narrative lyrics which hold my attention from start to finish – not least Clarence Carter’s ever wonderful ‘Patches’, to give but one splendid example – but I was raised on a diet of early 90s chart music and then the linguistic pillage that was Britpop. When Rick Witter and Noel Gallagher are foisting their words into your ears, sometimes it’s better to just zone out. Britpop was all about the tunes – most of them stolen – and bellowing out nonsense like “slowly walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball” or “he takes all manner of pills and piles up analyst bills in the country” without any great focus on what the fuck it actually meant. It’s why Jarvis stood out so prominently at the time and the focus was kept largely on the riffs. As an impressionable teenager, I swallowed the Manics’ shtick whole and rather liked the idea of moulding my own sense of my intelligence via their raft of sleeve quotations and passing literary references in interviews. They were my saving grace, my flag in the summit, my band. Looking back now, still very much in love with most of their catalogue, I’m thankfully rather less possessed of a sense of my own self-importance and can see that endless droning about the clever quotation at the end of ‘The Masses Against The Classes’ and the painful need to try and find some merit in the ill-advised of ‘S.Y.M.M.’ was very much of the moment.

This more mature listener can now be found sniggering at pop smashes laced with not especially subtle innuendo. I shared a house whilst at uni with a lad with a slighty unhealthy obsession with Rachel Stevens and can still remember the day he found out about her webbed toes. His ungentlemanly fantasies were never quite the same again, although I suspect they were reignited a few years later when, chasing credibility, headlines and internet chatter, she released ‘I Said Never Again (But Here We Are).’ It doesn’t take a professor of the double entendre to spot the conceit at the heart of this particular lyric, perhaps best exemplified by the demure couplet: “I feel such a traitor, oh I let you in my back door.” Quite. And while I can barely remember more than the odd line of Dylan’s vast and exceptionally worth back catalogue, I am forever blessed with the memory of a member of S Club 7’s paean to anal sex.

GA OOOOH

I like to think that the various characters responsible for writing many of the nation’s biggest chart hits spend hours daring each other to get ludicrous phrases into their lyrics in the same way we also used to offer a quid to anyone who could manoeuvre fatuous pairings like ‘irate penguin’ into history essays*. Where else could things like ‘let’s go, Eskimo’ come from? Indeed, Girls Aloud deserve a special mention at this point. I loved almost all of their singles as a result of them being utterly and irresistibly catchy, but the lyrics were all over the place. The Rachel Stevens award for pop music traitordom went to ‘Something Kinda Ooooh’ for ‘“Something kinda ooooh, bumpin’ in the back room,” whilst recent best of filler, ‘Beautiful Cause You Love Me’ contained one of the most unintentionally hilarious couplets ever to make the charts: “Standin’ over the basin, I’ve been washin’ my face in.” Oh yes! Still, isn’t it funny how I’m so willing to make excuses for that, raising an eyebrow and proffering a wry smirk, but get my critical arsenal out for the likes of Shed Seven and the Stereophonics?

It’s possible that I draw a line somewhere between brash pop music and the notional integrity of indie rock, but even writing that makes me think that’s quite a pathetic standpoint to occupy. And, frankly, those two bands are very easy targets. I did own a few Sheds singles at one point but quickly grew tired of lyrics like: “She left me with no hope, it’s all gone up in smoke. She didn’t invite me, rode off with a donkey.” Truly, what the fuck is that all about? But is it any different to talk of Eskimos or pushing the button? Some bands even make a virtue of their lyrics being woefully undercooked, Kelly Jones seeming quite happy to dish up baffling non sequiturs for a bit of rawk gravel every couple of years. For recent comeback merchants Suede, it seemed that petroleum and gasoline were never far from Brett Anderson’s lyric book.

During their first reinvention, the band released the glorious ‘Beautiful Ones’, which kept Shell happy and managed a burst of imagery which might go down well with Rachel Stevens’ team of writers: “high on diesel and gasoline psycho for drum machine, shaking their bits to the hits.” The true nadir came during the utterly off their tits phase of ‘Head Music’ and ‘She’s In Fashion’ with the profound couplet “and she’s the taste of gasoline, and she’s as similar as you can get to the shape of a cigarette.” Everyone knew those lyrics were shit, but everyone nodded along and enjoyed the tunes. Suede would be mocked mercilessly for such slap-dash songwriting in the same piece as being awarded Single Of The Week. It’s just what they do, you see. ‘Bloodsports’ would suggest that things haven’t changed too much during the cleaner years.

Suede BO

But what of the bands almost immune from criticism, revered at every turn and held aloft as artists of a generation? Clearly, Radiohead have come out with some very peculiar lyrics over the years but I took as my example one of my absolute favourite songs of theirs, ‘Weird Fishes / Arpeggi’. I love it, as I’ve explained at length elsewhere, particularly because of the vocal interplay in the third verse. Couldn’t give the most minute of shits what is being said, I just go all wobbly when that moment hits. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. And what of the song’s lyrics? “I get eaten by the worms and weird fishes,” is neither especially good nor especially bad, but in the track itself Thom is doing his level best to use his vocal as simply another instrument anyway. Straight out of the Michael Stipe school of art-rock mumbling and in no way detrimental to the power of the song.

But look back at old school folders and you’ll see band logos and fragments of lyrics all over the place. Do they matter more at that age? Is our increasing exposure to pretty much anything ever made as soon as we want it robbing us of the opportunity to absorb the true heart of the songs we hear? The feeling of being blindsided by a great bit of writing is still one of joyous intensity, whatever the frequency. I can still remember listening to ‘Karen’ by The National and thinking, ‘hang on a minute. What did he just sing?’ at the lyric, “It’s a common fetish for a doting man, to ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand.” How’s that for imagery, tutu jumpers and back door monitors?

Just as the whole ‘but what does it really mean?’ question at school nearly put me off poetry for life, I increasingly realise that I don’t need to understand what they’re on about, preferring to simply bask in the occasional majesty that nonchalantly drifts out of the speakers. Whether it’s new stuff like Martin Rossiter’s ‘I Must Be Jesus’ – “If life’s unkind, then you must be divine. And, yes, I do mean literally” – or the returning triumph of an old friend – “Oh, I didn’t realise that you wrote poetry. I didn’t realise you wrote such bloody awful poetry, Mr. Shankly” – I rather like not looking too hard. If it takes a rock biog to finally make me realise that something clever has been going on under my nose without me ever noticing, then so be it. The alchemy of great songwriting is way out of my reach and, while I’m never shy about casting the first (or second or third) stone when critiquing a record, I’ll always keep listening with the hope and expectation that I will find something truly magical. No problem so far.

*E.g. Disraeli was left, like an irate penguin, snubbed by Peel despite Gladstone’s appointment to the government

The Just Played Verdict: John Grant – ‘Pale Green Ghosts’

More than one nagging earworm that just won’t let go. Lyrics that provoke a genuine emotional reaction every time you hear them. A variety of styles deployed with unflinching belief in their impact. All of the above represent a small sample of the thoughts I’ve had about this remarkable album since I first heard it. ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ entered my world on January 1st and seemed a fitting palette cleanser for a year to come, but it had first demonstrated its power over me during John Grant’s performance at Swn Festival in Cardiff last October. Half a dozen new tracks were given a sparse rendering before a rapt audience in the beautiful Reardon Theatre.

JG PGG

On the several occasions I have seen Grant perform, he has always cut an awkward and intense figure onstage, but one with a brutal knack for self-deprecating connections with an audience. A select number of artists have a genuine pull of their own, a force that draws you in and lays siege to your soul. You root for them, smile at the sight of them, find yourself savouring every second of their songs, hanging on the last waves of reverb emanating from a final note before unleashing applause. In short, you spend ninety minutes grinning like a twat and never once wonder what the time is or consider how tired you are.

Grant is, for me at least, one of those artists and I approached ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ with a little trepidation, worried about the impact of my own expectations after the remarkable solo debut, ‘Queen Of Denmark’, which had proved to be my album of 2010. Having been teased publically via its title track, it was clear that this wouldn’t simply be more of the same. The bubbling six minutes of minimalist electronica and synth trumpets were a defiant way to follow up a record lauded for its Seventies-inspired singer-songwriter chops. Naturally, the always rational and considered internet community sprung into action and the album was written off in some corners before it had even had a chance to be illegally leaked for a little voyeuristic backlash porn. That uncertainty and unease which seems to have been prompted by the varied sounds of this release is easily allayed after a few listens and I now find myself, three months down the line, increasingly of the opinion that ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ is superior to that remarkable debut. A wildly different and yet reassuringly familiar beast, it possesses some truly wondrous lyrics and a sizeable portion of melody.

The lingering presence of lost love TC, who had more than his fair share of influence on the debut’s lyrical content, is noticeable across the album, although the mood seems rather more sour, not least on the gloriously venomous ‘Black Belt’. This track also neatly demonstrates the melding of his previous sound and the electronic music of which Grant has always been a fan. After some unexpectedly productive collaboration with Biggi Veira from electronic act Gus Gus, he was compelled to record the entire album in Veira’s native Iceland, despite having been planning to resume proceedings with Midlake back in Denton, Texas. It’s hard to imagine how a track like ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’ might have worked in such circumstances, having ended up sounding like a gloriously sardonic LCD Soundsystem.

When I wrote my sizeable justification for ‘Queen Of Denmark’ topping my 2010 list, I quoted the entire lyric to its title track as evidence of the quite stunning grasp of language Grant possesses and the way in which he can balance the rawest of emotions with the most knowing of smirks. It wouldn’t be difficult to pull a similar stunt in relation to this record and over recent weeks I have found myself unable to shake lyrics from several of the album’s highpoints. Most recently, and this will only serve to extend its run, it has been this measured but explosive chorus from ‘Vietnam’:

 

“Your silence is a weapon,

it’s like a nuclear bomb.

It’s like the Agent Orange

they used to use in Vietnam,

and it’s accompanied by an apathy

which is deafening to the ears.

You know it is complete and perfect

and you wield it without fear”

Add in the raw majesty of ‘I Hate This Town’, ‘Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore’ and ‘Glacier’ and you’ll feel like sobbing for him. Except you don’t. There is a strange euphoria at the heart of ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ which is intrinsically linked to Grant’s humility and humour. The wry and biting lyrical content is capable of rendering you occasionally speechless in delight at exactly what he’s just pulled off, and such a knack for communication and ruthless honesty resulted in him telling the crowd at a Hercules & Love Affair gig, where he was guesting last summer, that he is HIV positive. ‘Ernest Borgnine’ tackles this topic exactly as you might imagine he would: “Doc ain’t lookin’ at me, he says I got the disease. Now what did you expect, you spent your life on your knees.” Although this diagnosis has received column inches for pretty much all of the promotion of the album, it has a relatively small impact upon the songs. Indeed, it’s those two other initials which still seem more determined recipients of Grant’s venom.

The release of ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ has been accompanied by both a remix disc and an EP of stripped down piano versions of some of the material. Each has its own merits and I would imagine the simplified takes will likely appeal to those initially struggling with the shift in sound, but both serve to underline the quality of the songwriting on show here. Whether it’s the grandiose crescendo present on the EP version of ‘Glacier’ or the simple but effective way in which the ‘No Ceremony RMX’ of the album’s title track suddenly makes you realise just how gorgeously brooding those plastic horn stabs really are, the overriding sense is of being in possession of something truly special.

2013 has already shown itself to be a pretty impressive year for music and there’s a hell of a lot more to come, but it’s hard to imagine ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ doing anything other than growing in stature. In an age of shuffle, online streams and endless choice, this is a bold and innovative suite fully deserving of your sustained and repeated attention. Twelve weeks in and dozens of listens later, I’m just starting to realise what I think about this album. I am genuinely excited to see what its impact will be another twelve weeks or months down the line.

1. John Grant–Queen Of Denmark

Best of 2010At the start of the year, the big story about ‘Queen Of Denmark’ was that Midlake were the backing band. By December, the fuss is all about the remarkable voice, presence and charisma of John Grant. Battered, bruised, disaffected and dissatisfied after years as the frontman of one of rock’s great secret pleasures, The Czars, Grant had retreated from the world of music to wait tables and make use of some of the many languages in which he is well versed.

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Queen Of Denmark’, the slow-burning masterpiece of 2010, is the result of Denton, Texas’ finest coercing Grant back into the studio. When asked to review this album in the early months of the year, I gave it a solid seven. By the time it was released, and I was revisiting my text for publication here, I commented that it should have been an eight. If your experience begins in a similar vein, stick with it because it is now, unquestionably, a ten.

Musically, it is a triumph, exuding an early Seventies style warmth which curls out of the speakers rather than ambushing you with any unnecessary punch. The slinky unravelling of opening track ‘TC And Honeybear’ gives a pretty clear indication of the musical terrain which lies ahead, ‘Where Dreams Go To Die’ a sweeping mid-paced delight from start to finish. I originally described ‘Chicken Bones’ as like the Scissor Sisters at half-speed and I’m not trying to distance myself from that remark just now, although it is considerably better than anything said band have released to date. The lyric, “I got out of my bed this morning and I noticed that it didn’t have a right side,” is one of many, many brilliant lines on this remarkable album because it is one of those rare triumphs: a musical delight matched by exquisitely great lyrics. Obviously, I don’t own any copyright or the like on this, but I reproduce below the entire lyric from the album’s title and closing track, ‘Queen Of Denmark’. While Lucky Soul may have claimed the line of the year previously, the complete lyric of 2010 has to be this deliciously vitriolic expulsion:

I wanted to change the world,
but I could not even change my underwear.
And when the shit got really, really out of hand,
I had it all the way up to my hairline
which keeps receding like my self-confidence,
as if I ever had any of that stuff anyway.
I hope I didn’t destroy your celebration
or your Bar Mitzvah, birthday party or your Christmas.
You put me in this cage and threw away the key.
It was this ‘us and them’ shit that did me in.
You tell me that my life is based upon a lie;
I casually mention that I pissed in your coffee.
I hope you know that all I want from you is sex,
to be with someone who looks smashing in athletic wear,
and if your haircut isn’t right you’ll be dismissed.
Get your walking papers and you can leave now.

Don’t know what to want from this world,
I really don’t know what to want from this world.
I don’t know what it is you want to want from me,
you really have no right to want anything from me at all.
Why don’t you take it out on somebody else?
Why don’t you bore the shit out of somebody else?
Why don’t you tell somebody else that they’re selfish?
Weepy coward and pathetic…

Who’s gonna be the one to save me from myself?
You’d better bring a stun gun and perhaps a crowbar,
you’d better pack a lunch and get up really early
and you should probably get down on your knees and pray.
It’s really fun to look embarrassed all the time
like you could never cut the mustard with the big boys.
I really don’t know who the fuck you think you are;
can I please see your license and your registration?

So Jesus hasn’t come in here to pick you up.
You’ll still be sitting right here ten years from now.
You’re just a sucker but we’ll see who gets the last laugh –
who knows, maybe you’ll get to be the next Queen of Denmark.

And breathe. Staggering stuff, and ten times as good when you hear him actually singing it. The moment when the track explodes, as he cries out “Why don’t you take it out on somebody else?” is utterly perfect, the demented thrust mirroring perfectly the emotions at the heart of the song. There are many moments on the album where Grant settles prior scores and offers a quite mesmerisingly honest insight into his life, but this is its zenith.

At the risk of making every other post in this list about the Green Man Festival, watching Grant perform on a drizzly Friday night was one of those moments that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. A small band of those in the know had assembled, safe in the knowledge that a real treat was forthcoming, and the crowd grew considerably as his spellbinding baritone rose over the soggy fields and seduced the damp from all directions. Recent interviews have found Grant expressing genuine surprise at the reception to ‘Queen Of Denmark’ and it was clear that night that these songs continue to hold the baggage so openly displayed in their words. An a cappella version of ‘Chicken Bones’, as his stripped down stage setup didn’t allow for a full performance, lingers long in the mind and it served to highlight the staggering depth of a truly amazing voice.

Bella Union released an almost suspicious number of brilliant records in 2010, but none were more special than this unique burst of a man laying bare his emotional no man’s land. There is a remarkable double vinyl version available which is as good a pressing as any I own and which is the ultimate way to hear this sensational album. Hyperbole be damned, this is an absolute masterpiece.

April Reviews

Below can be found the latest instalment of what has become a regular feature. These are the six reviews of April releases I wrote for Clash Magazine which can be found in the print edition that should have just about hit the shelves as you read this. Some very good records in amongst this lot, including a splendid Doves career retrospective and the increasingly marvellous sounding debut from ex-Czars man, John Grant.

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RUFUS WAINWRIGHT – ‘All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu’ (UNIVERSAL)

Never one to hide his emotions previously, Rufus 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 the suffocating arrangements that dogged parts of his last album, the relative simplicity is 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. 8/10

I think I’ve briefly mentioned this record here before, but it’s worth restating how much of a breath of fresh air this is after the overcooked swamp of a record that was ‘Release The Stars’. New converts will not be found, but those who’ve been in love before will be in love again.

DOVES – ‘The Places Between: The Best of Doves’ (HEAVENLY / VIRGIN)

Quietly labouring away for some twelve years, Doves have amassed an outstanding catalogue of work. As a result, the deluxe edition is an essential purchase, with a second disc of b-sides, rarities and the odd album track too good to leave off. Sequenced by the band, both discs are remarkably cohesive; ‘Black And White Town’ and ‘Pounding’ nestle alongside atmospheric monster ‘The Cedar Room’ and new single ‘Andalucia’. The finest of the three new songs, ‘Blue Water’, kicks off disc two in style, deploying the same hiccupping drum pattern that served early single ‘Here It Comes’ so well. ‘The Places Between’ is a beguiling celebration of truly excellent music. 9/10

The new tracks on this make it well worth seeking out as it is, but the second disc is a tour de force in showing what Doves are really capable of. Stitching together b-sides, album tracks, session recordings and a few unreleased moments, it is a quite staggering listen and proof if it be needed that they are one of our great bands of the last ten years or so. If you have one of their previous albums on CD, click here to get £2 off the special edition.

JOHN GRANT– ‘Queen Of Denmark’ (BELLA UNION)

There’s a chugging seventies soft-rock quality to this record, giving it a warmth that’s hard to resist. The entire album’s beautifully measured musical backdrop is especially noteworthy, provided as it is by Midlake and, yes, that makes it as good as you might expect. ‘Queen Of Denmark’ is a luxurious sounding collection but what sets it apart from so many decent sounding folk-rock albums is the rich drawl of Grant’s baritone voice. Sweeping, epic ballads are his forte, but there’s something ludicrously charming about the skulking ‘Chicken Bones’, which sounds like a Scissor Sisters track played at half-speed. Odd though it seems, that’s a good thing. 7/10

An example of an album continuing to grow on me after reviewing, this one. I’d already sussed that it’s a good ‘un, but I’ve kept coming back to this and would now be tempted to budge it up to at least an 8. Nagging melodies and beautiful musicianship make this an absolute must. Simon at Bella Union reckons the vinyl edition will be something pretty special too.

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SHE & HIM – ‘Volume Two (DOUBLE SIX)

Sometimes it’s nice to find music that doesn’t require five listens before a tune emerges, to hear songs that capture a rapturous love of music and to spend the entire duration of an album grinning like an arse. Ludicrously talented pairing Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward have kept everything that made their debut great and added a little more jangle and some absolutely beautiful vocal effects for this second outing. While Ward is responsible for the arrangements and production, it’s Deschanel who can take all the credit for writing these timeless, sun-kissed pop hugs. ‘In The Sun’ is the masterpiece, but you’ll keep coming back to it all. 9/10

It’s albums like this that make you rue your absolutely miniscule word count. I could have happily rhapsodised about this one for several pages – and may still do at some point. Building on the greatness of the debut, this one is meticulously produced and perfectly suited to the six days of sunshine we’ll get between now and Christmas.

LUCKY SOUL – ‘A Coming Of Age’ (RUFFA LANE)

Marrying bittersweet lyrics with unashamed killer pop hooks is a tricky business. The Smiths were masters of the art form and, while they may not sound especially alike, Lucky Soul share a similar knack for musical alchemy. Singer Ali Howard possesses an absolutely adorable voice, knowing exactly when to go through the gears and when to rein herself in, and The Smiths comparison holds up with such lyrical delights as ‘some say I’m schizophrenic, but I walk in single file’. Part pop, part soul, part country and with a sprinkle of the classic girl-group sound, Lucky Soul make music to soundtrack the good times. 8/10

If you haven’t already figured out that I love this one, then you need to do some reading. Click here for the FUTUREMUSIC piece from earlier this year.

PEARLY GATE MUSIC – ‘Pearly Gate Music’ (BELLA UNION)

Brother of Fleet Fox and fully-fledged solo artist J. Tillman, Zach Tillman opted for a more atmospheric stage name before foisting his recordings upon the listening public. The moniker serves this record well, for it’s an often gravelly, proudly lo-fi collection of beat-up folk. There’s plenty here to suggest that a few albums down the line Tillman could be responsible for something genuinely special, but even this wilfully shambolic collection has its moments. ‘I Was A River’ is a beautiful meditation on love lost while ‘Golden Funeral’ is an opening track so hymnal and atmospheric that it makes it difficult for anything else to come close. 6/10

I suspect that this one could have long-term appeal. The sort of record that after living with it for six months, it all clicks into place. There are moments of beauty to be found, even on the first play, but it’s not as consistent as most records bearing that reliable Bella Union moniker. On that note, the new album by The Acorn, ‘No Ghost’, is bloody marvellous and due in June.

2010 on the record

Song Of The Day 39: The Czars – My Funny Valentine

Was just doing some research whilst finishing off my review of the debut record by the ex-Czars frontman, John Grant, and found this quite stunning rendition of a fabulous song. I know Grant had a SotD all of his own on Tuesday, but this is something you really should hear. No picture, no video, just a Spotify link right here.

I’ll try and write in a more substantial fashion this weekend, ok?