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.


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

20 from ‘11 so far – Part 1

I like lists. Even a brief browse of the site should make that pretty clear. As a result, read on for the first half of Just Played’s Top 20 albums from the first half of 2011. Where I’ve already reviewed the album in question, there is a link through to it, along with a listen link to Spotify and a buy link through to the marvellous Rise site, who’ll sort you out with the tunes pretty sharpish. Feel free to agree, mutter abuse or supply your own lists below. Right then…

20. Noah And The Whale – ‘Last Night On Earth’ (MERCURY)

Noah WhaleI didn’t see this coming. The debut annoyed the hell out of me and, as a result, I came late to their rather lovely, if raw, second outing, ‘The First Days Of Spring’. This is a long way from either and is a record which took some time to learn to love. However, it’s one of the feel-good indie pop records of the year to date and will sound amazing should we get much more sun. Lovely vinyl pressing comes with bonus 7” too.

“‘Last Night On Earth’, however, is the one I’ll be merrily recommending to all who’ll listen and cherry picking for my end of year compilation. Only the ruptured heart of a self-loathing blowhard could find anything to dislike about ‘Waiting For My Chance To Come’.”

Read the full review

Listen / Buy

19. Wild Beasts – Smother’ (DOMINO)

Wild-Beasts-SmotherThe bold and sizeable leap from ‘Limbo, Panto’ to ‘Two Dancers’ was an impressive enough feat, but with ‘Smother’ Wild Beasts have honed their craft and perfected their sound. There’s been much talk of Talk Talk in recent pieces about the band and there’s certainly something of the Hollis sound to parts of this album but it’s far from being derivative. Slightly less wilfully and protrudingly pervy than its predecessor, ‘Smother’ possesses a layered and fluid sound and has been produced superbly. Guitar lines are contorted and extended, serving to underline emotions conveyed by the typically forthright lyrics. A gloriously musical album, if that doesn’t sound too stupid, Wild Beasts’ third outing is one which I still think has plenty to reveal, even at this stage.

Listen / Buy

18. The Leisure Society – ‘Into The Murky Water’ (FULL TIME HOBBY)

the-leisure-society-into-murky-waterThe first album resulted in Ivor Novello triumphs and bemused Five Live presenters having to interview frontman Nick Hemming, despite seeming to know nothing about him or his music. While ‘The Sleeper’ featured a number of beautifully constructed songs, it’s on ‘Into The Murky Water’ that they’ve truly blossomed. Although frequently described as folky, this is orchestrated indie pop with an arch sensibility and a raised eyebrow. I’m reminded, and I mean this as a compliment, of some of Mull Historical Society’s finer moments at times and ‘You Could Keep Me Talking’, a ludicrously catchy little tune, is a good snapshot of the album’s joyous sound.

Listen / Buy

17. Radiohead – The King Of Limbs’ (XL RECORDINGS)

KoLIt’s not perfect and it’s not their best. But, that doesn’t make it bad or, to these ears at least, a disappointment. There’s much to love here and the more I’ve played it, the more I’ve warmed to its eight tracks. Wonderful moments like ‘Little By Little’, ‘Codex’ and ‘Giving Up The Ghost’ are enduring delights which all have aspects of the familiar Radiohead approach People seem to be complaining that the band haven’t taken a massive leap forward with their sound and yet eleven years ago there were cries about them failing to do another ‘OK Computer’ and fourteen years ago there were some complaints when ‘OK Computer’ wasn’t another ‘The Bends’. Yep, the band have got familiar with a certain sound but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some wonderful songs here. Forgive the defensive tone of this comment, but I do really think there are some great songs here, some months after all the hype, and, as I said in the original review, people would benefit from switching all desire to judge and simply listening…a lot.

“Once it clicks, you’ll likely find yourself sitting there wondering what exactly it was about it that confused you in the first place. Just like walking down dark streets to find somewhere you’ve never previously been to before only to find the return journey seems much quicker and considerably less threatening, the more full plays you give ‘The King Of Limbs’, the less any of it jars or seems wilfully perverse.”

Read the full review

Listen / Buy

16. Sarabeth Tucek – ‘Get Well Soon’ (SONIC CATHEDRAL)

Sarabeth Tucek Get Well SoonFollowing up a debut which was already no slouch, Sarabeth Tucek’s next step was this utterly beautiful record; a soundtrack to a number of difficult and distressing events, packaged like a late Sixties, cult singer/songwriter album of note. And that’s sort of how it sounds too. Cat Power, Callahan and Karen Dalton fans should all check in here for some wonderfully understated and finely crafted music for the soul.

“It’s the sort of album you’ll tell people about excitedly and buy for the sensitive types in your life. The album’s final lines offer a measured sense of optimism and triumph: “It just takes time, get well soon. I was once just like you, get well soon.” Many great records have been birthed out of traumatic or intense periods of an artist’s life, and to that list of fine albums can be added ‘Get Well Soon’.”

Read the full review

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15. The Middle East‘I Want That You Are Always Happy’ (PIAS)

I_Want_That_You_Are_Always_Happy-ArtworkThis was a complete punt, having been drawn in by the artwork and its appearance on a couple of record shops’ recommended lists. Parts of it are hauntingly lo-fi, some bits are winningly janglesome and there are occasional moments of genuinely bleak introspection. It makes for a varied and curious early listen and my first impressions were muddled. Whilst at first the fluid approach to genre and sound can make the record seem fragmented, repeated plays give it space to breathe and time to ensnare you. For me, it was a walk in the rain, with the album seeping up from the background to suddenly coalesce into something which has held my attention ever since. I haven’t yet written in detail about ‘I Want That You Are Always Happy’ because it’s so hard to categorise but I may have to work on that, as I suspect it will be higher up the list when I come to put together the more detailed end of year overview. Hugely recommended, but make sure you give it a few plays.

Listen / Buy

14. R.E.M. – ‘Collapse Into Now’ (WARNERS)

rem-collapse-into-nowIt’s not perfect and it’s not their best. But, as a long time fan of R.E.M., it was a joyous listen and it is their best since the turn of the millennium. Yes, ‘Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter’ does contain some pretty shit lyrics and, no, I don’t know why there’s that needless reprise at the end of ‘Blue’ either but there are some wonderful songs here and, for the first time in a while, their capacity to genuinely move me is back. The chorus of ‘Uberlin’ is vintage mid-paced R.E.M. while the short, sharp adrenalin burst of ‘That Someone Is You’ is close to melodic pop perfection, departing just shy of the two minute mark. ‘Walk It Back’ is the album highlight and its shuffling, understated delivery is one of Stipe’s finest recorded moments since ‘I’ve Been High’. If you want them to sound like Eighties R.E.M. then move along now and buy the ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ reissue but if you still have time for this band then I would be very surprised to hear that you were anything other than pleased with this largely excellent record.

Listen / Buy

13. Iron & Wine – ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ (4AD)

I&WThis album is curiously evocative of snow for me, despite sounding like it belongs in the sunshine. I was reviewing it during the ludicrously heavy snow fall of early December 2010 and, as such, I sometimes forget that this is actually a 2011 release. The cover is, clearly, ace and the music follows suit. While the gentle, lulling swoop of older material is rather less prominent now, Sam Beam’s music is never less than meticulously crafted and deeply affecting. ‘Godless Brother In Love’ and ‘Tree By The River’ are both absolute gems and just nudge several other tracks to be the highlights, but it’s a pretty close run thing. The music has smoother edges than on ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’ and the Seventies FM radio references in the early press material do make sense, but this is still clearly Iron & Wine and, by extension, tremendous.

“These ten songs ooze warmth, littered with classic rock gear changes, acoustic thrums and shuffling bass but the rhythmic schizophrenia from the last outing still remains intact. Although ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ is yet further down the road from ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’, it is still quite distinctively Iron & Wine. That said, if early outings left you cold and wishing that there was a little more meat on the bones, then this might be the time to commit some cash for a re-evaluation.”

Read the full review

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12. My Morning Jacket – ‘Circuital’ (V2)

My-Morning-Jacket-CircuitalOccasionally a song is so good it can eclipse the rest of an album, somewhat. That is the case with ‘Holdin’ On To Black Metal’, a song so absolutely enormous it is impossible to hear on headphones without commencing a strutting swagger replete with the sensation that you are now eight foot tall and completely invincible. It’s a song you’ll play five times in a row, a song with a children’s choir and a song with horn stabs to which you can thrust limbs in an angular fashion. And the rest of it’s pretty special too. Opener ‘Victory Dance’ is a thundering way to begin while ‘Wonderful (The Way I Feel)’ is intimate and positive without ever bordering on being saccharine, despite its title. There’s a cracking 45rpm double vinyl pressing which is the best way to experience such a sonically pleasing record.

Listen / Buy

11. Bon Iver‘Bon Iver’ (4AD)

bon iverIt was always going to be tough to follow up critics’ choice and all rounder indie sleeper smash, ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ but Justin Vernon doesn’t seem to have struggled too much, on this evidence. While I liked the debut, I grew a little tired of it due largely to the good lady’s borderline obsession with it which ensured it was playing somewhere in the house almost every day for a year. This is a leap on, with a different mood, subject matter and sonic palette. Oh, the saxophone. It’s still relatively early days for this one and I can envisage it getting plenty of plays during hazy summer evenings and slowly becoming as well-worn as its predecessor. It hangs together splendidly and I’m even inclined to forgive ‘Beth/Rest’ its excesses the more I play it. Be sure to check out the cover of ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ I mentioned previously, which appeared as a b-side to first single ‘Calgary’.

“It’s an album which sounds curiously out of time. Which is not to say it is timeless, far from it in fact. ‘Bon Iver’ sounds pointedly dated at certain moments, not least on album closer ‘Beth/Rest’, which has predictably provoked buckets of wrath for its Eighties soft-rock tones. While there are undeniably contemporary references here and there, it has the feeling of a moderately successful record of old, its beauty shining through despite the particular clothes of the time it has come from.”

Read the full review

Listen / Buy


Record Store Day – Tales From The Shop Floor

Record Store Day is a fundamentally good thing. It gets people talking about shops which had otherwise only been mentioned as part of features on the death of music retail and, in light of the number of independent stores closing finally reaching a plateau, demonstrates that many of these emporia still have plenty of life in them. Back in February, I raised a few concerns about how the stock was distributed and exactly how keen the labels are to actually help out the nation’s indies. Since then, I’ve been in touch with record shops across Britain to seek some clarification and there’s plenty to tell. The NME having hosted an intellectually flatulent piece about record shops in recent days, I’m keen to stress that any moans in this article are not directed at the record shops themselves and I urge you to get yourself down to your local palace of glittering delights this weekend and spend as much as your food budget will allow. In return for their honesty, I intend to keep all contributors to this article entirely anonymous.

RSD 11

With the list of exclusives for this year’s event now at over 200 items, it gives the impression that the big labels are falling over themselves to help out the indie stores of the UK. However, prices seem to be rocketing and several retailers suggested that labels were “pushing their luck” with one observing that these labels “spend 364 days a year trying to take business away from shops.” The massive reduction in the amount of sale or return stock, meaning that shops either pay for things upfront or don’t get any copies, increases the risk factor in buying big or even buying at all in the case of some of the deluxe items. For Record Store Day, nothing is sale or return. With a Saint Etienne box set containing only six 7” singles clocking it at almost £50, it’s a costly gamble to take in a time when the economy is supposed to be on its knees. Some shops have reduced their dealings with the big labels, with one owner telling me, “when shops can consistently order from Amazon cheaper, and receive the stock quicker, it makes ordering from the majors a luxury they can’t afford.” Another store took up the story: ”The majors look like they’re helping, by whacking out these releases, but come the Monday we’re still meant to try and sell the latest Universal releases for £13.90 (standard mark up) when you know Tesco will have it for a tenner or less.  The EMI, Sony and Universal sections in my shop are now tiny, I don’t order CDs from them unless I have to.” While I continue to believe that it is crucially important for music fans to support their local record shops on April 16th, it seems pretty clear that the big labels are only bothered when they have high-priced, attention-grabbing stock to shift.

Continue reading “Record Store Day – Tales From The Shop Floor”

The Just Played Verdict–Radiohead ‘The King Of Limbs’

Sometimes the weight of expectation is so great that the moment of release is doomed from the off. There was genuine, palpable excitement at the news of a new Radiohead album being less than a week away. In an age when even record label PR staff operate around when albums leak, this release mechanism sidesteps the usual build up and delivers a near instant fix for everyone at the same time. As a result, when you only have five days to wait from knowing of an album’s existence to actually hearing the thing, the excitement goes from zero to fever pitch in moments. As mere mortals stirred themselves into a state of aural arousal, the live-blogging plans whirred into action and the internet sharpened its typing fingers ready to shit out tiny nuggets of barely formed enormo-opinion at a world seemingly all trying to do exactly the same thing. While I can’t deny that there is something special about everybody sharing their first listen to a record, the depressing tendency towards massive overstatement and inane hyperbole made phrases like “where are the fucking tunes”, “it’s a Thom Yorke album” and “it’s another Kid A” make me want to pierce my own eyes with shards from a smashed up copy of ‘OK Computer’. The frequent desire to be first to review albums utterly baffles me. The pleasure of being first to listen, I understand, and I often get deliriously excitable when records I’m keenly anticipating arrive in promo form, but why prioritise saying anything over saying something? To see this lunacy in action, hang around any music discussion board and watch for any reasonably big release to leak. The clamour to declare the album to be either a masterwork or a disastrous misfire is startling and I can’t imagine listening to music in this way. When I’m reviewing albums, I am always determined to ensure that each record has had sufficient time to impress me before fashioning an erudite and witty paragraph or two. I remember as a teenager with limited funds spending hours upon hours poring over any album I bought, partly due to my youthful enthusiasm and partly because I wanted my money’s worth. As someone who now buys far too many records and receives a similar number in promo form, I do find myself occasionally longing for that less cluttered approach to music. It’s amazing to see how many people are willing to abandon albums by artists they seemingly at least have a semblance of interest in after one, clearly not all that attentive, exposure. The new Noah & The Whale album is actually rather good (no, really) but on first play it just seemed bloody odd and left me slightly nauseous. Elbow’s ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ comes across as rather one-paced on initial listens but then gradually unfurls into something quite majestic. And, let’s face it, since when have Radiohead released albums which make perfect sense after ONE FUCKING LISTEN?


Listening to ‘In Rainbows’ the morning after the download was released I felt distinctly underwhelmed, wondering what the hell was going on with the drums and why it all seemed a bit hit and miss. I reassured myself that it would probably make sense in due course and that by the time the discbox vinyl had arrived I’d likely be glued to the speakers. That album has gone on to become one of my absolute favourite records and is as cohesive and plain beautiful a set of songs as you could wish to hear. Listen to the “ehhhh-ehhh” backing vocals which come in after several minutes of ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ and tell me you’re not just a little bit moved. That said, it took me a number of months to really acknowledge that I loved that song and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The nature of reviews is that we don’t tend to wait months and months before transcribing our opinions but, in an attempt to at least find an imperfect solution, multiple listens are essential. Writing 40 From The Noughties was a delight because I got to review albums from a position of hindsight and, in an ideal world, that would be the best way for things to work. But they don’t. I, like you, want to know what’s good now and which new releases I should be spending some of my hard earned money on. So, what is ‘The King Of Limbs’ actually like? Continue reading “The Just Played Verdict–Radiohead ‘The King Of Limbs’”

New Music Monday – Philip Selway ‘Familial’

Forgive me if I don’t opt for a slightly shite attempt at a joke about how off-putting the idea of a solo album by ‘the drummer’ might seem. For some reason, a number of reviewers in the ‘big’ publications this month have opted for this approach, before pointing out that ‘Familial’ is actually worth your time. Did anyone, with even a vague understanding of what Phil does in Radiohead, along with his contributions to the recent 7 Worlds Collide album, really think this was going to be a weak record? Honestly? Add in the fact that it’s being released by the now freakishly unimpeachable Bella Union and there is no reason to be even slightly suspicious. Oh, and it’s really, really good.

Philip Selway Familial

You’ll likely know ‘By Some Miracle’ by now, what with it being the free download track on his website and I would imagine you’ve been as thoroughly charmed by its whispery, folksy ways as I was. The whole album is of a similar calibre, Selway’s voice actually proving to be rather affecting at times, such as on one of the best tracks, ‘A Simple Life’. A lovely soundscape builds slowly but oh-so-very meticulously to a pleading middle-eight which reveals a vocal style somewhere between a subdued Neil Finn and hints of a wistful Erlend Øye.

All Eyes On You’ is one of those tracks that reviewing clichés like ‘ethereal’ and ‘spectral’ were made for. See what I did there? I deployed both clichés, leaving you with a clear sense of what the song might sound like, whilst still maintaining credibility for not just deploying both clichés without self-awareness.  Clever that. The plucked guitar sound is a little unsettling and, at only two and a half minutes in length, it doesn’t stick around long enough to reassure you. But that, ultimately, is what makes this record so good. None of the songs outstay their welcome and many leave you wanting more.

Subtle but affecting strings serve their purpose, particularly on ‘The Ties That Bind Us’, which sounds like a vintage folk classic from the late sixties, and the sparse drum arrangements that do feature on the record are actually played by the really rather splendid Glenn Kotche from Wilco. A busman’s holiday this is not, nor does it feel like some half-hearted solo project, farted out between releases by the day job. This feels like a true labour of love and a piece of work of which Selway can be justifiably proud. ‘Familial’ doesn’t need to be sold off the back of a name or a brand, it’s good enough to stand alone and its presence on the Bella Union roster will do it no end of good.

Having said all of this, the acute ear for what will sound delicately beautiful is demonstrated throughout the record and the majestic sculpting of some of these songs belies Selway’s presence in one of the most sonically adventurous bands of a generation. ‘Falling’ was birthed for headphone listeners everywhere and will usher forth that special warm feeling you get when something hits you right in the middle of the skull. The odd track is a little too slight to stick, ‘Broken Promises’ being the prime example, but none are anything less than really rather lovely and, as quaint and frankly crap as that phrase sounds, I mean it as a compliment.

The drone-like start to ‘Don’t Look Down’, replete with abstract piano meanderings, marks another stunning headphone moment and ensures that there’s no dip in quality as the end looms into sight. One of the most hushed vocals on the record, it just about manages to stay atop the wash of sound that follows which in some way seems to be the musical equivalent of one of those deliciously melancholic days when the noise of the whistling wind and swirling rain coalesce into something oddly comforting.

The album closes with ‘The Witching Hour’ which, along with ‘The Ties That Bind Us’, will be familiar to those who purchased the aforementioned 7 Worlds Collide set and it sounds no less magnificent now than it did then, even if the repeated vocal refrain keeps reminding me of something, just out of reach. Indeed, there are a couple of moments on ‘Familial’ which seem eerily familiar. Perhaps it’s simply a case of them being such good songs they sound like tracks you should already know; either way, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

I’m still unconvinced about the cover art, but every other aspect of this record has won me over wholeheartedly. At just under thirty three minutes in length it will dash past you at first and you will need to spend some time with it, ideally with headphones, to truly fall under its spell. But please do and don’t let yourself fall into the trap of looking for any Radiohead comparisons. It’s a thankless task. Just enjoy what is there because… (deep breath) … everything is in its right place.

Familial is released by Bella Union on August 30th.

2010 inverted

02. Radiohead – In Rainbows

jp 40 02

It was inevitable. They could have drawn the money without asking any questions and I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. Pay as much as you like for the download or £40 for a ‘Discbox’ containing the album on CD and double vinyl, along with a bonus CD of extra material and assorted artwork and the like. I didn’t even think it was that unreasonable, after all a high quality double vinyl, 45rpm pressing could easily set you back £20 and then a double CD book edition of a Radiohead album for about "£20 didn’t seem that odd, plus you got the download for free as soon as it was released – what was there to think about.

02 Radiohead

I remember being a little disbelieving about the whole thing when the first announcement appeared on the internet. We were a good five years or so into a culture whereby the first time people heard new albums was when they leaked, rather than when they were released. Widespread excitement about a certain day on which everyone would listen to a new record was long gone. Reviews had less importance as most records would be floating around the web by the time the reviews appeared in print and anticipation was becoming an increasingly irrelevant part of music consumption. The notion that everyone – including the critics – would hear this album on the same day was exciting.

The low-quality mp3 files were quickly unzipped after a surprisingly rapid download time but I didn’t have time to actually play them after a manic day at work. So, in attempt to get to hear the album as soon as possible, it was burnt to a CD-R and put on in the car during the next morning’s journey. Sadly, a combination of shit bass on tinny speakers and poorly encoded music meant that it all fell a bit flat on that first play. I was a little underwhelmed and wondering what the fuck was going on. Over the next week or two, I started to identify ‘Reckoner’, ‘Weird Fishes’ and ‘Nude’ as pretty impressive tracks, while the rest of the album continued to grow on me. But it hadn’t smacked me round the face. Or punched me in the ear. Or kicked me in the cobblers. Or whichever tortured analogy for realising an album is great you wish to use right now.

In fact, ‘In Rainbows’ didn’t really make much sense to me until the box arrived. The 45rpm double vinyl pressing is an absolute delight and, if I ever need to demonstrate the power of a decent vinyl setup to somebody, it’s one of the albums I reach for. I still play the CDs from time to time, but they simply can’t match the out and out euphoria I experience at certain points in the album when listening on vinyl.

Take ‘Reckoner’, for example. That is a truly brilliant track whatever format or system you listen to it on; the wide-panned percussion is impossible to ignore. But when the bass starts to really creep in around the lyric, “you are not to blame for bittersweet distractor” it is genuinely mesmerising. By the time the strings are weaving in and around proceedings, it’s a thing of sublime beauty. Forgive me if this sounds like typical Radiohead fanboyism, but this record is above and beyond such naive chit-chat. It is, frankly, a masterpiece and this wonderful song sits stunningly in its midst.

15 Step’ is a similarly superlative performance, also built around innovative and jaw-dropping drums and percussion. It’s an insistent and bold opener and I can’t really imagine now how I didn’t spot that, even on a crappy car stereo. I know I’m at risk of sounding like some hi-fi snob, but this album really does deserve a decent pressing and a decent playback. It’s no less brilliant a record if it doesn’t get that, but it’s something just a little bit special when it does.

All I Need’, ‘Faust Arp’ and ‘House Of Cards’ can sometimes be overlooked at the expense of some of the other, more instant tracks surrounding them, but this also marked the return of Radiohead’s simple beauty, something they’d touched on with ‘Sail To The Moon’ on ‘Hail To The Thief’ but which hadn’t really been seen since 1997’s ‘OK Computer’. Gentle, simple pop-rock songs of this ilk were a revelation and it only served to prove that they hadn’t lost their ability to melt your heart, they’d simply been avoiding do it for a little while.

That said, my absolute favourite track on the album, and one of the songs that means most to me in my entire record collection, is ‘Weird Fishes / Arpeggi’. The whole song is pretty much perfect – from the direct pace set from the off by Phil Selway’s drumming, through the introduction of a gently weaving bassline and on to the wonderful vocal from Thom, it is a magnificent piece of music. But, where it really gets me, and by this I mean every single time I hear it, is when Ed O’Brien’s backing vocals kick in, essentially wailing ‘ahhhhh’ at the end of each line in the third verse. There is something about the combination of each line sung by Thom, followed by that brief addition from Ed that is as close to a perfect moment in music as I can honestly put my hand up and say I know about. I can’t put my finger on why that is, and I think if I could it probably wouldn’t be that special anymore. So, I might just leave it be and continue to love it. Next time you listen to the album, pay close attention to it and hopefully you’ll hear what I’m on about.

I truly adore ‘In Rainbows’. It is my favourite Radiohead album. I’m not going to say ‘OK Computer’ just because that is the conventional viewpoint. I’m not even going to opt for ‘The Bends’, because that’s what everyone who doesn’t want to seem obvious by saying ‘OK Computer’ says. ‘Kid A’ is great, and so is ‘Amnesiac’. But for me, all of their innovation and jarring, thought-provoking styles and textures are put into stark perspective by this perfect collection of ten songs. This could quite easily have topped this list. It is, sonically, the best album of the decade and one which I suspect will only get better with age.

36. Radiohead – Kid A

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It was my final year of school and I was just starting to realise that you actually had to work in order to get A levels when a friend pushed a certain CD into my hands. It had a crappy little inlay made in Word with a grim little font but that didn’t really matter as it contained eight tracks from ‘Kid A’ which he had downloaded from the internet. We were late adopters of the internet, my family. We’d only just got a computer and it was dial-up all the way. The aforementioned friend – Chris, should he happen to ever read this – was quite the opposite and had been pissing around on the net for years prior to this and this was the first time it had ever impacted upon me. He told me that it wasn’t what I might be expecting and that he didn’t really know what he thought of it. Sounded interesting enough to me.


I remember playing it through a shitty little green Alba CD/cassette player at school and being quite taken aback. I instantly loved ‘Idioteque’ and kept playing ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, trying to decide if that nagging sensation was like or annoyance. A few of the tracks had little messages embedded and little strategic clicks. Where the hell he’d got the songs from, I didn’t know but it was pretty clear that it was all a little dodgy. Still, hearing that music upfront was an absolute joy and it’s one of the last times I can remember an enormous ‘event’ album appearing without any serious internet clamour preceding it.

As a result, the finished album was largely familiar to me – annoying message and clicks removed – and for a little while I played little else. ‘Optimistic’ and ‘The National Anthem’ are glorious beasts, while ‘Morning Bell’ and ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’ are some of the finest, glacially atmospheric pieces they’ve ever released. I could offer a quick review of the album, but it’s all been said before. Suffice to say, it meant a lot then and means a lot now.

(I’ve mentioned the glorious 2001 Later Special before, but if you’ve still not seen – or even bits of it on the recent deluxe editions of ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ – you can see pretty much all of it in high quality here.)