Stephen Gill first came on my radar with his 'Field Studies' collection back in 2004. His work immediately resonated with me in part through the way in which it blurred the boundaries between the photograph as a tool of documentation and as means of exploring the experimental and conceptual. Gill’s 2010 ‘B Sides’ work appeals for similar reasons, but mostly, I admit, simply for the title and the things it implies.
There is a distinct possibility that the notion of ‘B Sides’ is entirely anathema to anyone grown up in the age of digital consumption of music or, indeed, for anyone to whom the mystical appeal of a 7” sliver of vinyl was always frankly unfathomable. My guess however is that the few people reading this are not amongst that target audience. My guess is that the few people reading this could gleefully reel of an extended list of wonderful songs that appeared as B sides. My friend Daniel Williams even wrote an extended blog project doing just that. Needless to say it is one the most enjoyable blogs I have read.
As Daniel would perhaps agree, the loss of the B side in terms of music has been something of a shame for the listener and the musician alike. Digital mediation of music has meant both the narrowing of the experience to individual tracks and simultaneously a widening of opportunity such that everything and anything can be ‘released’. Often inadvisedly. In the analogue era an economic necessity meant that although the B side offered artists the chance to experiment and take risks (or alternatively to play safe with an instrumental version of the A side) it did so within a strict structure. You could just chuck anything at all on there, but many didn’t. Many artists treated the B side with as much love and attention as the A side. Sometimes it was every bit as fine a song; sometimes it was even better.
Stephen Gill’s photographs play with this notion too, for his ‘B Sides’ are the flipside to ‘Coming Up For Air’. Photographs that did not quite fit with the body of the A side collection, they nevertheless deserved to be seen. No more or less experimental than the images that appear in ‘Coming Up For Air’, ‘B Sides’ is instead a body of work that tells a slightly different tale; that shines the light in subtly different ways, perhaps both metaphorically and physically. My favourite this morning is the shot of bicycles suspended from a ceiling; partly simply because it is a photograph of bicycles but mostly because of the way the shapes of the wheels are composed within the shot. They make me think of a Hannah Hoch collage and that is always a fine connection to be making.
Of course highlighting a single photograph from the body of work is akin to talking only about the strummed guitar in the first three seconds of ‘Velocity Girl’ and thankfully the truth is that there are many more treats to be found both within ‘B Sides’ and across Gill’s numerous other projects.
For a group who became one of my very favourites of recent years, my listening relationship with Allo Darlin’ had a decidedly inauspicious start. I wrote about it in my Unpopular advent series for 2010. The words ‘Identikit Twee Indie Shit’ were used to describe those early ungainly fumblings together, and whilst I kind of know where I was coming from when I said that, I also like to think I am big enough to admit when I get things wrong.
'Tallulah' was the song I wrote about in that advent series and it was certainly the song that challenged my perception. Of course it helped that the recording of the song that changed my mind was on a 10” record; perhaps my very favourite format even ahead of the 7” single and the 3” CD. It helped that the record had a lovely letterpress illustration slotted on the front of the brown card cover like an old photograph album. It helped that Allo Darlin’ shared that 10” record with the likes of The Claim, Amor De Dias and Hacia Dos Veranos (whose wonderful earlier recordings had graced my own ‘I Wish I Was Unpopular’ label on one of those adorable 3” CDRs). Finally it helped that the record was passed to me on a delicious summer afternoon over a beer or two by an old friend who has always reminded me of one of those Paninari on the Pet Shop Boys record: Someone with a richly and keenly defined sense of Love and Hate; someone who would speak passionately enough about things you thought you disliked enough to at least give it a second chance. And so it was that I gave Allo Darlin’ that second chance. So it was that ‘Tallulah’ became one of those songs that burrowed so deeply into my soul that to imagine a life without it is to imagine a life without a bicycle. Which is to say no life at all.
Naturally it helps the song enormously that it is titled after perhaps my very favourite Go-Betweens album (you can only ever write ‘perhaps’ in this context because surely one’s favourite Go-Betweens album changes depending on which Go-Betweens album one happens to be listening to when one writes that phrase). Naturally it helps that the song manages to pull off the explicit reference to other records and artists without coming over forced and awkward. And if that sounds like a throwaway line just stop and think about how many novels, for example, can do that without coming over horribly dated and vilely smug. The ease with which Elizabeth Morris slips reference to ‘Tallulah’ and The Maytals (good to hear Toots And The Maytals, huh?) in to her lines then is surely the result of careful crafting and more crucially due to the way in which these details support the narrative rather than appearing as clever-clogs name drops.
‘Tallulah’ is a song about movement and distance; about pasts and futures; about the slow unravelling of connections. It is a song that both captures the sense of slow decay that comes with age and the beautiful glimmers of revitalisation that punctuate that very process. Tellingly, Morris sings that she is “wondering if I’ve already met all the people that will mean something”, and whilst there is a certain sorrow in both these words and the almost cracking manner in which they are delivered there is also an undercurrent of hope and faith. Hope for the feelings generated by those connections to be revisited; faith in enough of humanity that it will occur. It is no surprise that this question is an echo of the line that precedes it; a line where songs replace people in a sweet acknowledgement of the strength of sounds and words. There is acknowledgement of the symbiosis between people, art and emotion. Awareness of the value of the moment to memory and attachment.
Having announced their dissolution as a band this year, it makes me sad to think that there may be no more Allo Darlin’ songs that might mean something special to me. But then again, I have ‘Tallulah’ to both remind me of what special qualities they had and that those qualities will resurface in another time, from another artist. Hope and faith. Important values now more than ever before.