BEST OF 2014: 3. Manic Street Preachers – Futurology

I’m occasionaly  accused of blindly praising albums by the Manics due to my enduring enjoyment of their work. I appreciate that I do tend to be positive about them more often that not, however, arguably, they’ve not released a disappointing record since the rather filmsy ‘Send Away The Tigers’. There are those who’ll tell you that ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ didn’t quite work, but I’ll gladly argue with such individuals until they see sense. Or admit weary defeat, at the very least. Add in the fact that I’m often pitched against an editor who hates them – despite adoring all dadrock and being one of only four people willing to openly admit to having been a Beady Eye fan – and I can end up feeling rather defensive when it comes to this truly remarkable band. I’ve written before about their significance to me, but I have been a borderline obsessive fan for the last eighteen years. I have grown up with them and was genuinely staggered when I read the other day that, were Richey still with us, his recent birthday would have made him 47. From the bluster of 1992’s overlong, over-ambitious glorious failure ‘Generation Terrorists’, through the unstinting glory of ‘The Holy Bible’, past the elegiac beauty of ‘Everything Must Go’ and on through the fear of being left-behind that prompted ‘Lifeblood’, the Manics have never really been dull. They are a quite remarkably brilliant live band and rarely to be found hunched over a rhyming dictionary bashing out lyrics. They are flawed, they are achingly human and they are mine. But, with ‘Futurology’, they may just have stirred something in people who’d long since stopped caring or even never cared at all. And there’s a reason for that.

3 MSP

With the autumn 2013 release of ‘Rewind The Film’ came the news that a second album was already in the can and that its Krautrock leanings would offer a very different version of the band to that found on its immediate predecessor. The announcement did the the first release no favours, with many twitching expectantly for the bombast and riffing promised elsewhere. It was a shame as the album offered a different, yearningly melancholic take on the band’s sound. That said, final track ‘30-Year War’, with its moments of gnarled vitriol directed at the class divide in politics, was touted as a bridge between the two sets and so, to a point, it proved.

As ‘Futurology’ was gently pushed back and back until its release was confirmed for early July, the anticipation continued to build. Whatever was to come had its work cut out before anybody had even heard a note. The spring tour which, one suspects, was initially booked to launch the second album but, due to delays, became a rather more balanced affair, offered up live performances of ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’ and the title track. I can remember beaming like an idiot in the middle of the CIA one Saturday night as a roaring take on the former demonstrated just how great this new record could be. Thankfully, despite having previously found the marrying of talking the talk and walking the walk a little uncomfortable, the Manics had truly done it. In many ways, ‘Futurology’ is close to being their definitive album. Now, I say this with a due note of caution, because it’s hard to envisage anything surpassing ‘The Holy Bible’, but put its mythology aside and remember that plenty of people find it pretty much inaccessible and you might just then be able to make a case for this being right up there. It has a little of the gristle and throb of that masterpiece, the sensational guitar playing of James Dean Bradfield plastered all over it and a neat array of styles and collaborators. ‘Walk Me To The Bridge’ is endearingly simplistic in its reliance on an enormous riff, but it only takes a few listens to become a monstrous earworm. ‘Between The Clock And The Bed’, however, is hugely different, with its glacially poised Eighties pop wash making for a hypnotic cocktail in combination with guest vocals from Green Gartside. The band themselves made reference to Prefab Sprout in the accompanying press notes and they were on the money.

I adore ‘Sex, Power, Love and Money’, which seemed to split opinion a little. It’s huge, bold and stupid. It has a Big Audio Dynamite thing going on, mixed with what I described at the time as an update of the Pet Shop Boys‘ ‘Paninaro’ for the 21st century post-financial collapse society. I have my reasons – listen to Nicky’s Chris Lowe-esque bridge of ‘Obsession – Possession – Confession – Recession’ and tell me it doesn’t stir some PSB memories. It’s like ‘Generation Terrorists’ era Manics with an extra twenty odd years of technical proficiency thrown in. Turn it up very loud and leap about a bit. You’ll love it. The same formula applies to the aforementioned ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’ which bursts menacingly out of the speakers, possesses a gloriously demonic guest vocal by Nina Hoss and features the best use of a cowbell in modern music in many a year. The band likened it to prime glam Goldfrapp and it’s the sort of song that, were we to still have smash hit, multi-formatted singles, would have been a smash hit multi-formatted single.

Add in the glorious thunder of ‘Let’s Go To War’ and the Motorik rhythms of ‘The Next Jet To Leave Moscow’, plus a stunning performance from the artist responsible for 2013’s Just Played Album of the Year, Georgia Ruth, on ‘Divine Youth’ and you’ve already got a very special record. Two instrumental pieces serve to be much more than mere filler, ‘Dreaming A City (Hugheskova)’ evokes notions of a 21st century bombastic evolution of ‘Low’, while ‘Mayakovsky’ is a gloriously tangled web of claustrophobic rhythms.

In short – which I’ve singularly failed to achieve thus far – ‘Futurology’ is the Manics album that even people who aren’t Manics fans like. Except my editor, of course. More fool him.

BEST OF 2013: 13. Manic Street Preachers – Rewind The Film

If ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ was ‘one last shot at mass communication’ then this, presumably, was the start of the band simply doing what they want. With talk turning to 2014’s ‘Futurology’, described recently by Nicky Wire as “POSTPUNKDISCOROCK”, it’s worth pausing to take in the quiet majesty of the first of two albums to arrive in quick succession. Regular readers will not be surprised by the band’s presence in this countdown, but it’s worth saying that having followed the band for over seventeen years makes the initial listens to any new music close to excruciating. The promo for ‘Rewind The Film’ arrived just before a weekend of long drives and uncomfortable hotels at a friend’s wedding and so fairly substantial exposure to these songs was granted in a short space of time. The first few plays were fine, if unremarkable. This is not an album of guitar solos or snarling vocal performances – ’30 Year War’ aside. This record has many moments of beauty which, as any fool knows, do not tend to translate well through car stereos. In fact, the breakthrough came later that weekend, whilst wedged into a bed in a gypsy caravan designed for Oompa Loompas. As the warm air of a summer’s night drifted through the window, the album seeped in through headphones and I was sold.

That the title track, featuring a lead vocal from the ever-charming Richard Hawley, was the first thing anyone heard from this record gives some sense of how the band weren’t playing the game this time. It’s a luscious sweep of melancholia, nudged towards brilliance by the late arrival of James Dean Bradfield for a surging chorus. Another of the album’s highlights also features lead vocals from a guest performer; this time it’s Cate Le Bon on ‘Four Lonely Roads’, which marches along swooningly, Le Bon’s voice floating over the backdrop before melding with Wire in the bridge. It’s a wonderfully understated tune and very un-Manics in its nature.

This delicate touch is felt elsewhere too, with ‘Builder Of Routines’ having a brass break which bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘God Only Knows’. This can, of course, only be a good thing and so it proves. Although the verses seem a little cluttered, the sonic palette of ‘(I Miss The) Tokyo Skyline’ is rich and warm, glistening electronica burbling away to good effect. ‘Show Me The Wonder’ and ‘Anthem For A Lost Cause’ tick the singles box rather neatly, with sweeping choruses and a good dollop of parping brass where once might have been emotive strings. Wire takes the vocals for ‘As Holy As The Soil (That Buries Your Skin)’ and is in fine form as he tackles his fond reminiscences of Richey Edwards. ‘Running Out Of Fantasy’ sounds like the loss of hope put to delicately plucked guitar, while ‘Manorbier’ is an instrumental piece which betrays the band’s increasing fondness for modern classical and ambient electronic music. It’s surprisingly well executed, even if it is somewhat overshadowed by the album’s final punch: ’30 Year War’. Described by Wire as a bridging song between this album and ‘Futurology’, it’s a dazzlingly brutal assault on the government and its shortcomings. It’s the sort of lyric you expect from this band, but you have to hear it to realise just how well they can speak for our times. While its successor may end up garnering all the headlines, ‘Rewind The Film’ quietly goes about its business and may well be perfectly positioned to play the long game. Their recent sizzling live form perhaps best highlights how at ease with themselves the Manics are feeling right now and, on this evidence, who can blame them?

Classic Album: Manic Street Preachers ‘Everything Must Go’

Having released the bleakest record of their career, and quite possibly of the entire decade, with 1994’s ‘The Holy Bible’, the Manics were reaching critical mass and it seemed something had to give. Chief tunesmith James Dean Bradfield was becoming worried that he wouldn’t be able to fit the increasingly polemical lyrics of Richey Edwards, permanent icon and sometime guitar player, to workable melodies. After poor sales of their bold third album, the band feared they might be dropped and, in February 1995, an American tour was looming on the horizon when Edwards disappeared.

Manics EMG

After several months of uncertainty, the band vowed to go on. Convening for a nervous get-together in a Cardiff studio, they attempted a run-through of a song called ‘A Design For Life’, assimilated from two different lyrics Nicky Wire had provided Bradfield with in the months after Edwards’ disappearance. Realising that they had something special on their hands, the Manics attempted to record, with Stephen Hague in the producer’s chair, but found the results to be mixed. Opting instead for Siouxsie and Associates producer Mike Hedges, revered at the time for his stellar work on McAlmont & Butler’s ‘Yes’, the band decamped to a French Chateau and got to work. Described by Bradfield as “the most idyllic experience the band has ever had,” the results were to reverse their commercial decline and redefine how the band was viewed.

Continue reading “Classic Album: Manic Street Preachers ‘Everything Must Go’”

5. Manic Street Preachers–Postcards From A Young Man

Best of 2010I was more than a little chuffed to be given ‘Postcards’ to review for Clash Magazine. As a Manics fanboy of some standing, whose obsession can be traced back to my early teens, I was curious to hear what “one last shot as mass communication” would actually sound like. I was delighted and, judging by the overwhelming positive critical reaction the album received, so were many other people. The Manics at their most polished, ‘Postcards’ paved the way for unlikely appearances on Something For The Weekend and Strictly Come Dancing, as well being piped through my local Co-op only this morning. This is deliriously outlandish pop which has soundtracked the second half of the year for me.

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That Clash review also brought about a couple of special moments for me. Firstly, this appeared on Twitter…

MSP Twitter

and then, in an interview with BBC Wales, Nicky had this to say:

Clash magazine gave us a great review the other day, and there’s no need for them to. They’re a young, glossy, cool magazine, but their review was really brilliant.

What a nice chap! Both were happy coincidences arising out of them releasing an absolutely marvellous late period album and proving that they still had the old fire in them. Having spent far too long talking about me, here is that original review once again:

Leave your prejudices at the door and open up your ears. After the militant basslines and scorching vocals of ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, the Manics are going for your heart. Talked up as one last shot at “mass communication,” this is an unashamedly pop record and its chutzpah is staggering. Gospel choirs, soaring strings and choruses you could use as landmarks in a blizzard make for an astonishing listen.

The joyous bombast of first single ‘(It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love’ never diminishes, similar to much of what follows, and it heralds a shift in approach from the band. The album could be subtitled ‘Happy Songs About Serious Stuff’, so frequently are complex lyrics presented alongside glorious pop hooks. Take ‘Hazelton Avenue’, which couples an admission that consumerism can make you happy with a riff which could hold its own in a battle with ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. Then there’s ‘Golden Platitudes’, reflecting on the disappointments of New Labour set against delicate strings and swooning backing vocals before giving way to an outrageous ‘la-la-la-la-la-la’ middle eight. It’s majestic.

Classic ‘Everything Must Go’ rock has its place too, with ‘A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun’ and ‘All We Make Is Entertainment’ both evoking that era. If ‘Journal…’ marked a return to the dark brilliance of ‘The Holy Bible’ then ‘Postcards…’ nods to the stadium-sized splendour of their fourth album. The additional confidence that comes with releasing your tenth album has allowed these meticulous students of pop to ditch the shackles and just go for it. Most remarkable of all tracks is the duet with Ian McCulloch, ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’, a slinking soulful number with both James and Mac in masterful form. It is unlike anything either men have done before and utterly beautiful.

There will be plenty of people who opt to be snobby about the fact that this record is so commercial, so polished and so brazen but those people are all, to a man, idiots. If you can’t love these songs, you are incapable of experiencing joy itself.

I Think I Found It. Again.

Nicky Wire really believes in his band. His passion is obvious, his fervour frequently unconstrained and his spelling frankly atrocious. He still writes messily spontaneous manifestos for each record, as if twenty years haven’t passed. He takes wilful potshots at the famous and revered and stands as tall as his knackered knees will allow as he proclaims his songs “so good every radio station will have to play them.” It is, unquestionably, all genuine. It’s often quite obvious that Nicky Wire is a massive fan of the Manic Street Preachers. Camcorder footage from the recording of ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ preserves last winter’s snow as it fell around Faster Studios in Cardiff, soundtracked by Wire clumsily, feebly but – crucially – enthusiastically singing an early incarnation of ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’. Featuring a guest vocal from Ian McCulloch alongside James Dean Bradfield’s formidable pipes, it is one of the most magical moments on ‘Postcards’ and surely ranks amongst the best Manics songs to date. It embodies all of the pop swagger Nicky dreamt of when plotting this latest bid for recognition. Notes such as ‘Queen plating ABBA’ and ‘strings to break your heart’ make it quite clear that this is an album which is unashamedly commercial, unashamedly polished and unashamedly huge.

Nicky Scrap

Some Kind Of Nothingness’ is a beautiful meeting of minds, melodies and voices played out across an epic soundscape, bolstered by swooning strings and a gospel choir which stays just the right side of cheesy. It is perfect pop music and it’s something which the band couldn’t have done ten or even five years ago. It is the ultimate manifestation of a band truly at ease with itself. The spectre of ‘The Holy Bible’ hung over them for years; a long time fan favourite but a totem of trickier times, it was a far cry from the tinny sheen of ‘So Why So Sad’ and the cascading piano of ‘I Live To Fall Asleep’. ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ offered more in that vein and brought the spellbinding lyrics of Richey Edwards to a new audience along with the exorcising of a few musical demons along the way. It cleared the decks and firmly flung all baggage overboard. The confidence borne of the realisation that there’s no longer anything to prove doesn’t always lead to positive results, but on this occasion all is well. As the choir swells behind Mac bellowing ‘never stop, never stop, never stop, never’ prior to the final chorus of ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’ the shameless pursuit of pristine pop is realised and the smartest gamble the band have taken in a while pays off in style. Though this song, and the album as a whole, will rub some people up the wrong way as a result of its fearless ambition, it has prompted a rebirth which had seemed so unlikely. ‘Postcards’, like ‘Everything Must Go’ before it, stirs something in me, triggers a casual euphoria and a day without it seems so very, very wrong.

Journal For A Manics Lover – Cardiff Castle, September 1st 1998

Being called a “fucking squirrel” by James Dean Bradfield, aged 15, was a very special moment for me. Having chatted with me about my home town for a good five minutes, he was incredibly gracious as I kept flinging items in front of him to be signed. Sat in the confines of Cardiff Castle, having just been privy to, the still to be released, ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’ on some truly massive speakers, I was in my element. The sudden appearance of James next to me marked the first time I ever felt what you might call star struck. Having won a competition to attend the launch of the Manics’ fifth album, I was more than a little giddy that evening. Furnished with an information pack which contained an A4 booklet with each of the tracks’ lyrics, page by page, along with a selection of press photos, already seemed ludicrously exciting to my teenage mind without the addition of an actual Manic to scribble all over them. It marked the culmination of three years ascending to fever pitch over anything and everything the Manics had released. I’d come late to the party, I’d only really known them as a three-piece, but I was totally hooked. They were my band, as they have been to so many people at various points over the last twenty years. They’d grown up thirty miles down the road from me, felt no pressure to fit in and were endearingly caustic yet frank in interviews.

For many months thereafter, ‘This Is My Truth…’ was my album of choice more often that not. It’s not their best, it didn’t top the majesty of ‘Everything Must Go’, but it defined a moment for me and listening to it today I found I could remember almost every word. A new Manics album was a proper event for me, whether I heard it sat in the same room as James or by doing battle with a dial-up connection and the nascent days of Napster, and I’ve realised today that that hasn’t really changed. As is transparently obvious to anyone who regularly reads this site and follows the associated Twitter feed, I’ve had ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ since the end of July. I had to write a review of it after only four days of, admittedly solid, listening. I’ve continued to play it furiously in the intervening weeks, still backing in its all-out power-pop glory and massive riffs. However, being able to pick up the various editions today, in person, from Spillers Records brought back all of those memories of pre-ordering ‘This Is My Truth…’ from Woolies to make sure I got an embossed cover and of diverting my dad from ferrying me to a university interview in London to Sister Ray to acquire ‘Know Your Enemy’.

manics_pfaym_cover

This tremendous set of songs, one of their best I would argue, is beautifully packaged and, out of all of the versions available, the 2CD set housed in a hardback book probably represents the best value for money, containing pages from Nicky’s scrapbook, early versions of lyrics and demos of the whole album on the bonus disc. This week, I intended to write at great length about this record and why I find myself slightly surprised at how much it means to me. As you’ll have noticed, Just Played is going to wear a slightly different outfit for the week. Should you dislike the Manics intensely, all will be back to normal by Monday 27th.

September Reviews – Manics, Ben Folds, Peter Broderick, Underworld & Rough Trade Psych Folk

Currently available in a newsagent near you in almost the same from as you can read below are these five reviews of albums released this very month. Some good stuff here and one of the strongest reviews months I can remember. Don’t worry, next month is a bit of a let down by comparison. I wouldn’t want you to think I was enjoying myself too much. Still, I have the lead review this month which means more words to play with, so we’ll kick of with this relatively lengthy appraisal of a very fine record.

manics_pfaym_cover

MANIC STREET PREACHERS – ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ (COLUMBIA)

Leave your prejudices at the door and open up your ears. After the militant basslines and scorching vocals of ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, the Manics are going for your heart. Talked up as one last shot at “mass communication,” this is an unashamedly pop record and its chutzpah is staggering. Gospel choirs, soaring strings and choruses you could use as landmarks in a blizzard make for an astonishing listen.

The joyous bombast of first single ‘(It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love’ never diminishes, similar to much of what follows, and it heralds a shift in approach from the band. The album could be subtitled ‘Happy Songs About Serious Stuff’, so frequently are complex lyrics presented alongside glorious pop hooks. Take ‘Hazelton Avenue’, which couples an admission that consumerism can make you happy with a riff which could hold its own in a battle with ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. Then there’s ‘Golden Platitudes’, reflecting on the disappointments of New Labour set against delicate strings and swooning backing vocals before giving way to an outrageous ‘la-la-la-la-la-la’ middle eight. It’s majestic.

Classic ‘Everything Must Go’ rock has its place too, with ‘A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun’ and ‘All We Make Is Entertainment’ both evoking that era. If ‘Journal…’ marked a return to the dark brilliance of ‘The Holy Bible’ then ‘Postcards…’ nods to the stadium-sized splendour of their fourth album. The additional confidence that comes with releasing your tenth album has allowed these meticulous students of pop to ditch the shackles and just go for it. Most remarkable of all tracks is the duet with Ian McCulloch, ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’, a slinking soulful number with both James and Mac in masterful form. It is unlike anything either men have done before and utterly beautiful.

There will be plenty of people who opt to be snobby about the fact that this record is so commercial, so polished and so brazen but those people are all, to a man, idiots. If you can’t love these songs, you are incapable of experiencing joy itself.

9/10

I really do love this record. As a bit of a Manics fanboy I had high hopes for it and was a little concerned that it might just be another ‘Send Away The Tigers’, which is to say the sugary high would give an instant rush but wear soon thereafter. Not so. I received this at the start of a holiday at the end of July and spent much of that week listening to it in all kinds of different locations and situations and I soon found that I had absorbed huge amounts of the record without even trying which, in my book, is a very good sign. I’m still playing it frequently now, another rarity when it comes to the albums I review. If you hate the Manics, don’t bother. But I genuinely can’t see why anyone who has ever been fond of the stadium sized incarnation of this band wouldn’t take to this.

I should just point out that the last paragraph and score as shown here is not how it appeared in print. There’s always a risk with any vaguely opinionated stance that it will get subbed out before it ever appears in the magazine and, likewise, high scores are often marked down without any reasoning. However, this is the first time I’ve had a whole paragraph – and the bloody conclusion at that – switched out for something riddled with clichés and containing a basic misuse of the apostrophe. I know, I know, I should calm down but, eugh, it’s annoying. Annnnyyyway…

sept reviews 1

BEN FOLDS & NICK HORNBY– ‘Lonely Avenue’ (NONESUCH)

It has to be said that, considering how Nick Hornby is credited with writing all of the lyrics here, the usual Ben Folds key words are present and there’s only so much ‘bastard’, ‘shit’ and ‘fucking’ I can take. Despite this concern, as well as being Folds’ most musically accomplished outing since going solo, it does feature the magnificent phrase, “some guy on the net thinks I suck and he should know; he’s got his own blog.”Sublime strings from legendary Bowie arranger Paul Buckmaster provide a charming gloss, while ‘Your Dogs’ is an alarmingly accurate rendering of early Elvis Costello. 7/10

That line is good, isn’t it? Or am I just saying that to try and disprove it! Hah, you may never know. I’m not just saying. You know. In all seriousness, I do still find it far-fetched that the lyrics are so typically sweary when not written by Ben. Curious to hear your thoughts when it’s out. For followers of the @justplayed Twitter account, this may bring back vague memories of my rampant swearing about the pissing stupid copy protection on this CD which meant it didn’t actually play in most of my players and, even in those where it did, it seemed to have actually have screwed up the audio on parts of certain tracks. My good will was tested to breaking point and, had it not been an artist who I genuinely follow and care about, it would have been hurled out of a window or used to line a bin in no time. By all means restrict access to new stuff, but please, please don’t presume we’re all criminals to the detriment of the actual music. What with that being the only thing that matters and all. David Hepworth recently wrote a splendid piece along similar lines over on his blog here.

PETER BRODERICK – ‘How They Are’ (BELLA UNION)

Recorded in one day and functioning as a stop-gap ahead of a full album in early 2011, the seven songs on ‘How They Are’ are stripped back and plaintive. Blending the heart-rending vocals of 2008’s more fleshed-out ‘Home’ with the stark augmentation of his soundtrack work, it’s a curious but beguiling beast. Be sure to seek out remarkable opener, ‘Sideline’. 8/10

A Bella Union release that’s brilliant? Really? Who’d have guessed? Ok, so it’s pretty much my label of choice this year and currently running with a remarkable hit rate. Just wait for the Our Broken Garden and The Walkmen albums – both are brilliant. They also have the nicest colour coordinated promo CDs I’ve ever seen. Feel free to ask me about this on Twitter if you’re that interested!! The vinyl pressing of this is superb, if a little pricey for only seven songs. However, whether you’re a fan of singer/songwriter Peter Broderick or instrumentalist and composer type Peter Broderick, you’ll enjoy ‘How They Are’. It’s short, by the way, because it went in the side bar, just like the Rough Trade comp below.

sept reviews 2

UNDERWORLD – ‘Barking’ (UNDERWORLDLIVE.COM/COOKING VINYL)

Having lost focus with 2007’s ‘Oblivion With Bells’, it looked like Underworld’s descent into the lower echelons of musical history was assured, but ‘Barking’ may yet reverse that slide. While there are still occasional dips, the alchemy of old returns. ‘Always Loved A Film’ ranks with their very best material to date, a swelling refrain blending with Spanish guitars to euphoric effect. ‘Grace’ and recent single ‘Scribble’ aren’t far behind, while album closer ‘Louisiana’, just piano and Karl Hyde’s haunting vocal, sounds uncannily like Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis and it makes you wonder why they don’t do more like it. 8/10

I really didn’t expect to like this as much as I did, the previous outing doing little for me but there is something utterly charming about ‘Barking’. I maintain that ‘Always Loved A Film’ is an absolute treat and while it’s not a perfect record, some of its highs are very high.

VARIOUS ARTISTS  ‘Rough Trade Shops… Psych Folk 10’ (V2 / COOPERATIVE MUSIC)

This 21 track compilation makes for a slightly laborious listen taken in one sitting but, used as a starting point for further explorations, works like a charm. Sample it in little chunks and you’ll be sure to find some new favourites from the slightly wonky end of folk. Sleepy Sun and Hush Arbors for me, but there’s plenty to enjoy. 6/10

This is a tricky one, because this comes across a little more harshly than I would now wish. I stand by my comments about it not working in one sitting, but there is some really very good stuff on it and I have it to thank for my recent conversion to the wares of the marvellous Sam Amidon, who you should really spend some time with. Weirdly, despite a 6/10 review, I ended up buying a proper copy of this at the Green Man Festival from the Rough Trade tent where it came with a bonus 10” with a scarce Doves remix. It prompted a bit of a re-evaluation. It would easily be a 7 now, possibly higher, and if this sort of thing is your bag, you really should give it a listen.

A voyage of disc-overy. And the come down.

Last month, I reflected on the early years of my CD collection and how, as a latecomer in small town Wales, I took a little while to get up to speed. I left the story at the early days of university life, grabbing music from every direction and pouring my student loan away at a genuinely terrifying rate.

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Things didn’t improve massively in the immediate months thereafter. By Christmas of the first term, I realised that the food budget probably should have been the priority ahead of the musical free for all. Still, I had a massive pile of CDs to show for it and several weeks to do even less than I had been for the term I’d just completed. A few weeks of parentally sourced food had me back to relative normality and the obsession was well and truly underway. I would never fly quite so perilously close to financial ruin again but, in the same way that I was already figuring out what percentages I needed across my course to get what I wanted, I had taken the time to deduce exactly how far I could push it. The early noughties represented the boom time of the remaindered CD. We’d all spent most of the nineties being robbed blind with prices starting at £12.99, often heading on upwards, and it was time for a change. Shops like the original incarnation of Fopp and the slightly ugly imitation, Music Zone, tapped into this market and took off. We were buying any old shite because it was £3. Ok, so that may not have been you precisely, but enough people were that these shops began to expand across the country. The first Fopp I ever encountered was in Nottingham, one of the most successful stores and, as a result, still open today under HMV ownership. It was genuinely overwhelming. Here was all of that music I’d read about, heard about and had played to me over recent years. And priced at £5 or less. I rarely left without a bag full and the sheer novelty of inflating your record collection without deflating your bank account massively was an addictive thrill which never wore off. Their genius positioning of piles of truly unwanted albums at £2 and £3 all along the front of the tills ensured that you ended up purchasing all kinds of stuff as a result of impulsive grabs whilst waiting to be served. Occasionally this was successful – Neil Finn solo albums, Ron Sexsmith, Pulp – but more often than not it was foolish decision.

selectaclosed

Not that such logic ever stopped me, you understand. Indeed, the success of these shops encouraged many indie stores to develop their cheapo back catalogue sections in order to compete and the end result was yet more low price music upon which I could binge wilfully. The dear departed Selectadisc did a fine job of locking horns with Fopp and, after a couple of years of taking it on at its own game, appeared to be emerging victorious, offering better stock at even better prices and, for some time, the lure of Fopp was diminished. My time in Selectadisc resulted in a reignited affection for vinyl, the lure of their upstairs department of wax too tempting to resist. And so, to a room barely big enough for me, let alone any actual stuff, was added a cheap turntable from Argos and I was back up and running. Vinyl purchases were few and far between, mainly as a result of cost, and my love for the 5” disc was sustained. This was, at least in part, down to its convenience, used as it was to soundtrack frequent bus and train journeys, along with the fact that I could easily transport my current favourites with me wherever I was planning on being each weekend. I wasn’t yet an audio geek and the loudness wars hadn’t really got going. It was a handy, increasingly cheap format. What was there to dislike? It was destined to be the invincible format, no?

25966-hi-napster

No indeed. Just prior to university, one of the last big releases of my school days was ‘Know Your Enemy’, the Manics album where they temporarily lost it and started loitering about in Cuba and making sweary, so-bad-it’s-good disco songs like ‘Miss Europa Disco Dancer’. As it turned out, it wasn’t worth all the excitement, but it provided me with my first taste of how internet piracy would be a thorn in the side of the bloated music industry. News was circulating amongst what was still a relatively nascent internet community about tracks from the new Manics record being ‘out there’. And so, there I was installing this thing called Napster to try and figure out what was going on. Next thing I know, Sony have had loads of users banned for sharing these leaked tracks and the ‘us and them’ approach becomes reality. From that moment on, I figured that the record companies had no idea what to do about this new opportunity to acquire music without paying or, to sum it up more succinctly, steal stuff. In retrospect, at the risk of sounding a little holier than thou (but fuck it, it’s Sunday), I’m quite glad we had the slowest dial-up connection in the world being run through one of the slowest computers in the world at home, because I never really saw what the fuss was about back then. Now, I don’t have a blemish free record, and I did briefly flirt with SoulSeek but I’ve never really seen the point of downloading day and night in order to have so much music you couldn’t actually listen to most of it even if you wanted to. I don’t get a thrill from a digital file, I don’t enjoy unzipping folders or making massive computer based playlists. It just doesn’t do much for me, despite my music geekery.

However, my mildly pretentious dislike didn’t count for much in a world let off the leash with broadband and a spindle of CD-Rs for company. Cliché though it sounds, I lost count of the number of times I overheard people in record shops saying, “Oh, don’t bother buying it, I’ll download and burn it for you.” There are those who want to say there’s more to the demise of record shops than downloading and, to a certain extent, they’re right. But I refuse to believe that a little box in the corner of people’s rooms, pumping out as much ‘free’ music as they could get their hands on didn’t fundamentally alter the way many thought about the value of music. Add in the bloated gluttony of the supermarkets as they tried to hoover up any remaining areas of possible money making that they didn’t already have under one roof and the increasing prominence of magazine and newspaper freebies and music was no longer something you saved each week for. You didn’t have to wait for Saturday, in fact your barely had to wait at all if you had decent enough bandwidth. I watched as the record shops in Leeds started to suffer, I saw stores around the East Midlands looking truly unwell before taking their final breaths.

fopp closed sign

My habits were changing by now. Forced onto the internet by decreasing local options, I was now lured in by the ‘cheap’ new releases that could be bought via places like CD WOW! and Play.com as a result of their geographical locations. And so yet more CDs ended up piling up in every corner of the room. While I never fell for the charms of downloading more music than I could even dream of,  I think it would be fair to say that I had my own, far more expensive, version of that disease. I’m a little ashamed to admit that, for a little while, I think I gloried in the acquisition a little more than the listening. It was just so easy, so tempting and so exciting. Double CD reissues, limited edition digipacks, bonus tracks and bonus discs all kept me coming back for more. And then, ALL of the independent record shops anywhere near me closed. And it ended. The constant flow of ludicrously cheap, and often simply ludicrous, bargains dried up overnight and I was suddenly confronted with the strange experience of my own critical faculties sharpening up in front of me. CDs sounded like shite, looked like shite and were increasingly associated with a time of overindulgence. I’ve written before about the compression and loudness of modern records, apparently in order to make things sound good on iPods and in cars, and how it frequently results in vulgar sounding records and a complete lack of sonic excitement, but it was the final straw.

It was only a couple of years ago when things started to shift and only within the last twelve months that I’ve actively been reducing the number of CDs I buy quite drastically. I’m very much a vinyl man now. So much new music is now back to being released on the format that it’s far less of a problem to find things than it was only two or three years ago. Pressing quality is often excellent, even if prices are a little on the steep side at times. What was the precise breaking point? Last year, I returned from a holiday with a sturdy ‘bag for life’ from one of the nation’s supermarkets, full of CDs. An entire row of spine-up titles ran along the bottom of the bag, from end to end, with further bits and bobs stacked on top which had been picked up at various record shops I’d sought out across a week. Yes, most of them had been cheap but what was the point now? How many had I wanted beforehand? How many were impulse purchases? How many were simply because I could? How many was I still playing by the time I reached the end of 2009 and was rummaging through the racks? The answer, as I suspect you’ve already guessed, was not all that many. The return of vinyl to my affections, which began to gather pace around five years ago but truly took of in the last eighteen months, has reinvigorated my listening and returned me to fully appreciating the album as an experience, an intentional collection of songs in a particular order. It’s reignited my desire to seek out record shops wherever I am and to support independent retailers as often as I can. It’s put me in touch with music sellers as enthusiastic and passionate about the things I listen to as I am. And it feels very good indeed.

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.

Song Of The Day 6: Saint Etienne – Jackie Collins Existential Question Time

The two best covers I heard last year were both officially released as remixes, despite having somewhere between none and a minimal amount of the original actually featured in them. I’ve posted previously about the wonderful remix of Florence’s ‘You Got The Love’ by Jamie from The xx, which basically involved The xx doing their own version of the song and then chopping up a bit of Florence in the breakdown section of the track. It’s a beauty.

The other wonderful cover was given a very low-key release as part of the initially download only (and even since only a very limited vinyl pressing) album of ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ remixes for the Manic Street Preachers. Each track from the album was remixed by a different artist, with hugely varying degrees of success, but most opted to actually keep the main elements of the original in place. Saint Etienne said ‘sod that’ and rebuilt what was already the album’s poppiest track into something wonderful kitsch. The world of music was already saturated with Saint Etienne deluxe editions, best ofs and the magnificent 2009 take on ‘Foxbase Alpha’ by Richard X (cunningly titled ‘Foxbase Beta’) and so nobody paid an awful lot of attention to what was, songwriting credit aside, a new Saint Etienne song.

Sounding not unlike a Sixties girl group smash at times, lyrical content aside, and with the twee turned up to full, it’s a gloriously sunny pop song and ideal for perking you up as you look at the ever-present snow whilst hugging the radiator.

(If you’d rather Spotify it, along with having a look at the full list of remixers, click here or if you’re a Manics fan and haven’t heard about the special vinyl pressing of the ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ vinyl, click here)