Let me admit from the start that I have had a soft spot for the songs of Jof Owen ever since the first Boy Least Likely To single dropped into my lap way back in (glances at Interweb to check history) 2003. Can that be right? Twelve years? Surely not. It was one of the most delightful unsolicited pieces of mail I have ever received.
In those twelve years The Boy Least Likely To have delivered an array of perfectly formed quirky Pop masterpieces, each laden with songs of a uniquely British charm. They have been records filled with unapologetically upbeat renditions of suburban ennui. They have been records filled with deliriously downbeat flirtations with love and affection. I have loved each dearly.
Perhaps inevitably then Owen’s latest outfit borrows many of the motifs of The Boy Least Likely To and places them firmly within the context of an unashamedly passionate obsession with Country music. This is Country music made by people who both adore and observe the traditions yet refuse to create dull, lifeless facsimiles. Owen is too sharp for that and anyway cannot (and thankfully does not want to) escape from the influence of the Pop created and consumed in the Britain of his youth. So whilst the songs on ‘Talk About Country’ mine seams common in the genre (tales of hardship, separation, distance, movement, loves lost and hearts wronged) they do so whilst nodding knowingly to comfortingly familiar UK references and humming hooks that wouldn’t be out of place on a SAW production. As a result they have become my most played set of songs from the year: the songs I’m most likely to find myself singing along to in barely controlled glee and teary-eyed reminiscence. They are the songs I want to hold close to my heart and whisper that I’m glad I found someone who feels the same.
‘Talk About Country’ is Marty Robbins as a dumpy little Goth listening to Talulah Gosh; is The June Brides in love with June Carter; is Ray Davies in ‘Calamity Jane'. ’Talk About Country’ is Wham! Goes Honky Tonk and hang the consequences.
‘Talk About Country’ is, for what little it is worth, the most Unpopular album of 2015.
You can buy ‘Talk About Country’ from their Bandcamp page. They even have an excellent fanzine and the most glorious Christmas single in ‘From St. George To Snowflake’.
It is a year since I first heard The Drink, when their ‘Company’ collection of EPs lit up my world in spectacular fashion. It didn’t occur to me until later that I had heard some of the band members in action already, for I had loved The Wharves split with Rosy Crucifixion on Soft Power, just had not made the connection. And much as I enjoyed that Wharves set, on the evidence of ‘Company’ The Drink were an even more beguiling and captivating experience.
I therefore looked forward enormously to the release of ‘Capital’ this year, and after innumerable spins I have to say it still never fails to excite me. In many ways it has all the ingredients needed for my preferred Pop noise: vocals that cloak a folkie purity inside the quirk of infectious ADHD; guitars that pique and pierce the heart with razor barbs; guilty rhythms that drive and dive in awkward poses; love that comes in spurts.
Now reviewers inevitably cart out imagined influences and references, all heaped in an unwieldy clutter in a wheelbarrow of hipster desperation. Here’s my pile: Stereolab in drag; Throwing Muses bubblegum; Hellfire Sermons on helium; Shangri-Las on razor blades; Jactars in lime jelly (that last one’s for Chris Jones!). Let’s throw in too a reference to the mighty Life Without Buildings, whose magnificence The Drink most often make me think. At the risk of coming over all Chris Roberts, ‘Capital’ is music that is gracefully awkward. A ballet of swans battling the bruisers of Sauchiehall Street.
News of a new studio album by The Chills (the first in nearly 20 years since 1996’s terrific ‘Sunburnt’) filled me with delight. Anticipation, yeah, yeah, yeah… The moment of pleasure is so much better.
‘Silver Bullets’ is the best Chills album ever because it is the only new Chills album this year. And even if it was not I’d be wagering that it would be a firm contender for the songs here are every bit as fine as anything that has come before. Which, when you stop to think about it and listen again to the backstory is some mighty claim. But really, really, ‘Silver Bullets’ is just so insanely delicious. Like every Chills record ever made ’Silver Bullets' is filled with songs that challenge and cheer. Martin Phillips’ way with a tune so effervescent and uplifting, cloaking lyrics that are just ever so dark, melancholy and provocative is as effortlessly proven here as anywhere in that back catalogue. And if, on occasion, those lyrics come over as ever-so-slightly naive, clumsy and hopelessly idealistic I rather think it makes one wonder why one doesn’t still feel the same as Phillips. What did we lose? When did we lose it? How can we get it back?
‘Silver Bullets’ is a record of hope and despair, of wonder and weariness. I love it every bit as much as I love every other Chills record I have ever owned.
‘Silver Bullets’ is available from Fire Records and other online purveyors of recorded music. If you are lucky enough to have a real record store close to you, you’ll probably find it there too.
This story has been told before. Some friends will roll their eyes at hearing it again. But I have to state at the outset that ever since he woke me up in the middle of the night (and on a school night!) in 1994 with a transatlantic phone call to enthuse about having discovered another Stockholm Monsters fan, it has been my fervent belief that John Darnielle can do no wrong.
‘Beat The Champ’ would have had, on paper, the best chance of proving me misguided, for the thought of a record filled with songs about wrestling is hardly the thing to make my heart race. Wrestling is not something that has ever appealed, and despite this Mountain Goats record being so splendidly stuffed with marvellous stories and characters, I admit that my interest remains resolutely far from piqued.
Yet here’s the thing: As a Pop record, a Rock record, a ‘concept’ album if you must, ‘Beat The Champ’ is as astonishingly accomplished and celebratory as you could wish for. This really should be no surprise, for Darnielle and his now well established band have a deeply rich and triumphant back catalogue. To say that none are better than ‘Beat The Champ’ is saying a great deal. Plussing as which the very premise of wrestling is, as Barthes once noted, the very essence of Good versus Evil. It is Entertainment in which masked superheroes battle for supremacy in a gaudy, openly acknowledged arena of illusion and suspended belief. “Comic-book heroes who existed in physical space” as Darnielle himself said. So Pop.
It still does nothing for me though.
‘Beat The Champ’ in contrast does lots for me. I love the fact that the songs are often related through the voices of characters who both express the realities of the ’sport’ and yet transcend those narratives. This is a sign of a great writer (and Darnielle’s novel ‘Wolf In White Van’ has been, predictably perhaps, one of my favourite books of 2015 - one of a handful that tempted me from a steady diet of Golden Age English detective fiction) able to deftly get under the story and get to the essence. Loss, death, disappointment, distance, ache, weariness, whatever. ‘Beat The Champ’ is full of all of these and more.
Musically too ‘Beat The Champ’ is sensational. Veering from punked out, punch drunk explosions to tender, introspective piano interludes, often before you’ve even had time to catch your breath and gather your thoughts, it is a record confident enough to recognise the value of mood and pace changes.
‘Beat The Champ’ is a record that rewards multiple listenings. The multiple narratives and characters slowly seep under your skin and leave a delicious itch, even if (or perhaps especially if) you have zero interest in the historical realities (or otherwise) of the tales being woven. Just don’t let the wrestling put you off.
‘Beat the Champ’ is released on Merge Records and is available from all good record outlets.
Take equal parts Archies, ABBA, Association and A.R. Kane. Stuff into blender and spin into a syrup. Spread on tape and turn everything up to 11. Watch the needles on the level monitors strain to escape the limiting bars. Pour. Enjoy.
You now have ‘The Scene Between’. The most cheekily noisome and euphoric set of Pop recordings ever collected in one place? Possibly. The most magnificent Pop Art sonic confectionary released in 2015? Certainly.
From the glossy sleeve photo of paint streaked like ice-cream on a summer sidewalk to the bubblegum pink vinyl onto which the songs of overwhelming exuberance are pressed, this record oozes Pure Pop Art obsession. And whilst in some cases such obsession could be dismissed as cloying, patronising, hipster point-scoring bullshit, with Ian Parton’s Go! Team it thankfully comes over as genuine passion and excitement. This record is like the aural equivalent of those over-excitable kittens gleefully pushing everything in sight from the table top (I just know you’ve seen the videos).
‘The Scene Between’ sounds like your favourite flexi discs, all muffledy-thump (if you’ll pardon the reference) and hissy. Electric thrills and sonic spills. Melodies to make your eyes bleed and your heart melt. A world of exclamation marks, onomatopoeias and exquisitely, endless and essential alliteration.
Repeat, repeat, repeat.
‘The Scene Between’ is available direct from the Go! Team shop and from the usual online purveyors.
If the Pop Carousel alluded to in yesterday’s entry were fully functioning then I expect that Salad Boys should have a few more years left in them yet. ‘Metalmania’ certainly is the sound of a young (trust me, compared to me, a lot of groups fall into this category) gang delightedly exploring their record collections and making a glorious, cacophonous righteous racket. Forced to hazard a guess as to what the contents of those collections might be I would suggest the likes of Straitjacket Fits; Clean (and actually, yes, they have performed as David Kilgour’s back band); Verlaines; oh, any and many number of those classic ‘Dunedin’ sounds of the flighty Flying Nun back catalogue; Pavement; Feelies; Velvet Crush all crushed out and rusty. It’s all hazy sunshine, drizzling dampness and electric sharpness. Euphoric melancholy.
One rather expects that the reality of what’s in Salad Boys heads is more informed by the Metal alluded to in the album title, but this record is so infectiously driven by great tunes and the brilliant brevity of Pop that one might also suggest that such an imagined reality is a million glorious miles away from the noise that I hear when I play it. If that even makes sense. Which it probably doesn’t, for which I claim artistic license.
Longest number by some way is the magnificent centrepiece ‘No Taste Bomber’. A splendidly spiralling sound that spins in and around itself like a neon whirlwind, this number is what I imagine Buffalo Tom would have sounded like had they attempted to cover Loop instead of The Jam. Or ‘Sensitive’ played by The Feelies. Imagine that. It is a song that you want to last forever, lost in the spectral cacophony of its own imploding noise.
If Peter Walsh Milton is someone who works “hard at work developing my sitting still and keeping quiet talents, which to me are a little bit neglected in this world” then one rather feels that Robert Forster is one who would applaud such sentiments. On ‘Let me Imagine You’ he sings “There was silence, things we didn’t know/ There was romance, where I couldn’t go”. Well quite.
Forster’s Go-Betweens of course famously (or not so…) featured Walsh in the line-up for a short time in 1979 and Forster and McLennan wrote the marvellous ‘Don’t Let Him Come Back’ about this episode in the band’s history. “Who’s that in his apartment?” Well quite.
And just as it has been a pleasure to have The Apartments back this year, so it is to have this new solo set by Forster.
Now I recall a time when I was attempting to orchestrate some wonderful writers on my Tangents website: There was a brief pre-millennium exchange of views between a couple of friends about whether there ought to be some kind of enforced ‘Carousel’ style cut-off point for anyone wanting to make Pop records. And whilst I admit there is still something perversely appealing about refusing anyone over thirty the right to write and record a Pop song I also concede that to do so would be both to willingly misunderstand the way Popular music has evolved within our culture (for better and/or for worse) and to make most of the records I have enjoyed so much this year impossible. Certainly the idea that someone like Robert Forster would never be allowed to make records again is as preposterous as it would be depressing.
At once both familiar and fresh, ‘Songs To Play’ is the record I always wanted to hear from Robert Forster. Which is to say that ’Songs To Play’ is a Robert Forster record and I always want to hear a Robert Forster record. Who wouldn’t? Well quite.
Infamous Go-Betweens devotee Luke Haines wrote a splendid piece on ‘Songs To Play’ for The Talkhouse website. He said all the things I would have said had I the time, the intelligence, the wit and the head free of snot I am currently encumbered with. And as I write this that article is ironically, and somewhat fittingly, unavailable. “Error establishing a database connection.” Maybe it all means we should stop reading and writing and just go and listen instead. Well quite.
‘Songs To Play’ is available. So go and buy it already.
That pre-millennium Tangents exchange is here and here. I hope the writers do not mind my drawing (admittedly very scant) attention to their sixteen year old words (as in, the words were written 16 years ago, not that they were 16 when they wrote them...).
Captured Tracks reissued The Apartments’ wonderful ‘The Evening Visits…’ set this year and that was of course something to celebrate. If you have not been aware of The Apartments then discovering that treasure will be of enormous pleasure. Be sure, however, to also pick up the new ‘No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal’ set that also appeared earlier this year. It is sensational.
Now in these times of instant information retrieval you can catch up on Peter Milton Walsh’s backstory easily enough, though I rather feel this is a shame, for it would be more fitting if the details were only available in the yellowing pages of archived magazine articles held in dusty oak-lined libraries. Treasure to be discovered by the archaeologists. There is a lovely line in a Guardian article where Walsh comments on his relative invisibility over the years, saying he has been “hard at work developing my sitting still and keeping quiet talents, which to me are a little bit neglected in this world”. Amen to that.
Indeed, if ever a record were to sound like ‘sitting still and keeping quiet’ then ‘No Song…’ would be among the chief contenders. And like other nominees such as The Blue Nile’s ‘Walk Across The Rooftops’ or Talk Talk’s ‘Laughing Stock’ it is a record that understands that ‘keeping quiet’ does not necessarily equate to leaving empty spaces. Richly textured and deliciously coloured (Amanda Brown’s string arrangements are a delight), the record is one that radiates sadness in the most beguilingly warm manner. That sorrow is of course immensely personal (the loss of Peter Milton Walsh’s young son in 1999 threads unapologetically through the record) but equally it transcends the specific to become universal. The album’s monumental centre-piece ‘Twenty One’ is almost too raw to listen to and yet so divinely wonderful you would never dare turn it off. Even a song as apparently ecstatic as the gorgeous 'September Skies’ is dusted with melancholy, whilst album closer ‘Swap Places’ sees Milton Walsh asking “Where’s the God in all of this?” above an almost spectral wash of strings, piano, guitars and a forlorn heartbeat drum. No answer is expected or even possible of course, but one does rather want to insist that God is in each detail of every one of these songs; is in the creaks and cracks of the vinyl as it spins; is in the sound that fills the space of our hearts as we listen.
I imagine that to Peter Milton Walsh ‘No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal’ feels like the tiniest fragment of balm to wounds of immeasurable pain. To the rest of us it sounds like a masterpiece of delicate beauty.
Three years ago I penned a remarkably succinct entry for day 20 of that year’s advent series. It was for Dick Diver’s ‘Calendar Days’ set and the words suggested that in it’s grooves one could hear "the tendrils of Lucksmiths, Go-Betweens, Triffids”. With their ‘Melbourne, Florida’ set of 2015 one could maybe just about still hear echoes of those references but only just, and only if you tilted your head to one side and squinted just so. This, I should hasten to add, is not a criticism.
‘Melbourne, Florida’ is stylistically somewhat all over the shop, and marvellously so. Where ‘Calendar Days’ presented a cohesive visage, this set is wilfully playful: A face pulling an array of faces, each as splendidly complete and convincing as the last. The sounds are harder, stronger and manifestly more robust than before. More Snapper than The Clean, for example (and if you need that example - I understand that Dick Diver themselves are averse to comparisons to The Clean, which seems unfathomable to me but then I’m not a musician trying to establish my own signature, so what the hell do I know?), particularly on the very brilliant ‘Competition’. All nasty synth buzzsaw and motorik drive, it is my default ‘go-to’ song on this record. Other cuts are every bit as fine, if every bit as different: Opener ‘Waste The Alphabet’ is all Feelies meets Sneaky Feelings in a dusty garage; ‘Tearing The Posters Down’ is tequila fuelled loneliness and frustration; closer ‘View From A Shaky Ladder’ is one of Lou Reed’s acoustic ballads filtering in on the sunrise (and where Steph Hughes really does sound astonishingly close to Triffids’ Jill Birt).
‘Melbourne, Florida’ shows Dick Diver to be a group growing ever more confident in their abilities to make something intriguingly individual from their chosen sources. I’m excited to hear what they come up with next.
These days I almost make a point of not seeking out pre-release ‘review’ copies of new records. The thrill of waking up on release day may not be quite the same as it was when I would eagerly dart into a record shop on the way home from Art School to pick up that new Sarah 7” but it still has the power to send a tremor into my weary heart. But when Guy asked me if I’d like a copy of the new Butterfly Child album a couple of months ahead of release, I admit I jumped at the chance. Naturally, immediately and convincingly, it became a firm favourite.
Of course I knew all about the A.R. Kane connection from the Butterfly Child backstory, but nevertheless the initial reaction on hearing this set drifting through my head on a late Indian summer’s afternoon was that this was some kind of perfect mating of Kane and Wilson, of ‘69’ and ‘Friends’, ‘i’ and ‘Smile’. In the intervening weeks I’ve listened to it innumerable times and find myself always drifting back to those thoughts. Naturally too, thoughts of the likes of ‘Loveless’, Bark Psychosis, Talk Talk and Flying Saucer Attack drift into the reveries, coming up sweetly against the melodies and songwriting eloquence of Bacharach and David or the brilliance of the Brill Building magic. In my head I can’t help string these references together in reverential symphony, all the time knowing that in ‘Futures’ I am hearing a sound that is, if not exactly transcending those influences (I mean how the hell do you transcend Burt and Hal?), certainly transfiguring them into something sensationally, seductively special and spectral. At year’s end ‘Futures’ still sounds both new, Now and effortlessly timeless all in the same heartstoppingly beautiful single breath.
But don’t just take my word(s) for it. Neil Kulkarni’s review for the Quitus is every bit as perfect as ‘Futures’ itself. One of those rare and treasured moments where a writer’s words not only compliments but amplifies the power of the artefact being written about. It is a review that one cannot help but punctuate with internal squeals of delight and only-just-held-in ‘YES!’es. The warming delight that someone else GETS it in just the same way you do. Connection through the ether. Invaluable. So many lines I would wish to claim for my own, each of them capturing a special reason why ‘Futures’ should be such an essential purchase in your grab-bag selection box of 2015.
"Like remembering summer in an ice age” indeed.
‘Futures’ is available from your favourite record store or online purveyor of digital downloads.