You know how it goes: so many people posting so many links to so much music, it is so difficult to keep up. Which means, on the whole, one doesn’t, does one? Instead one simply trusts to fate. So it was that I happened on Everett True’s posting of the video to Royal Headache’s ‘Carolina’. It might have been on Collapse Board, or FB, or some combination of the two, but whatever, the poster frame for the video certainly caught my eye, with the guitarist holding his Rickenbacker high and looking like he might be auditioning for East Village or Hurrah! Or perhaps, if he swapped to a bass, playing the part of a young Robert Vickers in some Go-Betweens biopic. I will admit however that pressing ‘Play’ initially confused me somewhat. The group looked and sounded terrific, bearing out the minor-chord style of East Village, but fronted by someone who looked like he was in entirely the wrong band and should instead have been touting his wares with The Levellers on a tour with Jay Kay. Not good.
The sound burrowed deep however and made me want to hear more. I’m glad it did, for the short and bittersweet ‘High’ set has become one of those go-to records for raising spirits and injecting adrenalin into the day. Clocking in at under a half hour, it is a record of marvellously mixed references. It's Ramones meets The Faces; The Action dancing to Buffalo Tom; The Jam walking back to Woking tripping to The Eyes. Someone with a handle on band names of the last twenty years can no doubt adapt that list to mean something to The Younger Generations but frankly I know my audience so I shan’t make the effort.
Instead I shall just say that ‘High’ is a speeding train of thrills and if you don’t hear the title track and immediately want to play it all over again then you have no soul.
Kevin Pearce has written what needs to be said about Fay Hallam. It made me immeasurably proud to host his words on my Tangents site way back when. When Kevin was writing his ‘Fifty Thousand Reasons’ series, of which Fay Hallam was part 12. I knew some of what he wrote at the time but by no means all. As always Kevin opened up new horizons. I just never had the time to follow them all. Three years previously Kevin also wrote about Hallam’s group Makin’ Time in which he again quoted that line about Mccullogh saying Vic Godard was God, so I got that right a few days ago. Re-reading all those articles makes me quite dizzy. What a time we had.
Kevin of course has had a whale of a time since the dissolution of Tangents. His various series and books have been filled with typically genius words that tell of strange and sensational journeys in music, films, books, whatever. I read them and wonder at his appetite and determination. Jealousy, I admit, is present at times.
But back to Fay Hallam and again I stress that everything you need to know can be read in Kevin’s words. Over here, for example, in the throwaway line in an article ostensibly about French artist Stella (but typically crammed full of other names and references) in which he recalls Fay telling how she first got into music. And then he mentions disappearing from view. And Shena Mackay. Again. Which is as it ought to be. Again.
That connection to Stella and other French chanteuses like Chantal Goya is essential after all in appreciating why ‘Corona’ is such a special record. For that spirit of the sounds and styles held within all those things Kevin mentions is here to hear: Alain-Fournier and Moliere. Francoise Hardy and Anna Karina. Catherine Ribeiro and Genevieve Galea. Tim Rose and Diamanda Galas. Nina Simone and Nico. I love all that. All that history. All that connection. All that jazz.
Around this time last year I had the good fortune to meet Night School label maestro Michael Kasparis. Perhaps unsurprisingly we talked mostly about Strawberry Switchblade and the planned re-issue of Rose McDowall’s exquisite ‘Cut With Cake Knife’ set (and if the ad-hoc rules for the Unpopular advent allowed re-issues then that would surely be an inclusion this year) but he also introduced me to Molly Nilsson. I came away from Monorail in Glasgow that day clutching copies of ‘The Travels’ and ‘These Things Take Time’ albums, along with a couple of 7” singles. Each one was exquisitely wrapped in a stark blank and white aesthetic and I looked forward excitedly to placing them on the record player when I returned home to Devon. Anticipation may be so much better, but the reality of hearing those Molly Nilsson records for the first time was a sublime pleasure. They sounded like Stephin Merritt playing Nico backed by Depeche Mode circa ‘A Broken Frame’ under a slow-motion disco ball. I thought them wonderful.
Nilsson’s new ‘Zenith’ set from this year is similar terrific. It barely strays from the premises of those earlier records yet is none the worse for that. Nilsson is clearly an artist firmly in tune with her aesthetic and is enjoying exploring subtle stylistic nuances within that vernacular rather than seeking constantly to reinvent her work from new palettes or materials.
‘Zenith’ comes over at first glance as glacially cool and expressionless: a chrome and concrete minimalist set viewed through the lens of 1981. Yet beneath that facade there is a emotional rawness and sense of loss that belies the chill. At its best (‘Clearblue’'s refrain of “All the parties we never went to” is frankly heart-rending, as is ‘1995’’s "So what's wrong with living in the past? It just happens to be the place I saw you last”) ‘Zenith’ is a record that casts rare spotlights of colour onto beautiful ice-sculptures lurking in shadows.
Back in March or so I thought to myself that ‘Once More From The Top’ was a record so far out of kilter with any kind of fashionable ‘scene’ that it would surely be destined for immeasurable success and glory, or doomed to the obscurity of the dreaded ‘cult status’, only to be ‘rediscovered’ and dusted off twenty years hence and proclaimed as a lost masterpiece. By year’s end I’m still not entirely certain what the world outside of the Unpopular universe has made of the record, but either way I’m here now (and fate willing in twenty years time) to say that it is indeed a masterpiece of a record.
You may be aware of previous records by The Granite Shore from this advent series.’Tomorrow Morning, 3 a.m.’ featured in 2009 whilst ‘Flood Of Fortune’ cropped up a year later. Both those singles gave glimpses of the magically madcap album that Occultation label boss Nick Halliwell and his band of merry pranksters might have in them. And whilst it may have taken a few more years to appear than some of us might have hoped, ‘Once More From The Top’ certainly has not disappointed.
Now Halliwell is unashamedly a words man, and the importance of language is focused by the voice being unrepentantly high in the mix. It takes a little getting used to, particularly since Halliwell, whilst in possession of great vocal idiosyncrasies, is not a typically gifted singer. That said, fans of just-ever-so-off-kilter vocalists will find no problems and will quickly warm to his sonorous tones. Lyrically it is deft and delightful, certainly not poetry being shoehorned into Pop, but rather, to paraphrase Taylor Parkes, Pop being angled just right so it slots neatly into poetry. And even that’s not quite right because in fact it more like Pop being tilted just so, such that it sweetly dovetails with prose-poetry. Of course if I suggest Baudelaire as a reference you will likely think me pretentious and silly and you might be right, and yet, and yet - there is a tint of that glorious romantic vision at work here (“j’aime les nuages… les nuages qui passent… là-bas… là-bas… les merveilleux nuages!”).
With Halliwell’s songs exquisitely coloured in by a band of accomplished musicians from the likes of Distractions, June Brides and Wild Swans, ‘Once More From The Top’ is by turns magnificent, self-indulgent folly and remarkably accomplished masterpiece. The two are not incompatible.
One irony of writing these advent entries is that a ‘review’ of a record is highly unlikely to carry much weight with me. So quite what I expect other people to make of these, goodness only knows. Then again, I could probably give you the list of names of everyone reading this. It would probably fill a small page in my A5 notebook. And my writing is quite large and sprawling.
The point of which is to say that I once read a particularly unkind review of ‘The Race For Space’ that, essentially, boiled down to that fact that the reviewer was in accordance with Ken in 'Freaks in Geeks' in averring that “Space blows”. Now I’m no Science geek, but I admit that I rather like both the concept and the execution of this record. That same review made a point about there being more up to date achievements with regards space travel that would be more appropriate to celebrate but frankly that just wilfully misses the point and misunderstands the way that history works. The point at which events move from being contemporary moments to historical memories may be marvellously arbitrary, but there is something very appealing in hearing these particular snatches of Space history re-configured into new forms, given new breath and scope.
Sonically, there is much in ‘Race For Space’ that still thrills me some ten months on from its original release. The crescendo of ‘Sputnik’ building magnificently around the bleep of the satellite (the recent remixes 12” is similarly splendid); the witty funk groove of ‘Gagarin’; the sombre Orb-like gloom of ‘Fire In The Cockpit’; the motorik blast-off Pop exuberance of ‘Go!’; the Global Communications drift of set closer ‘Tomorrow’. All proof that whilst Space might blow, ‘The Race For Space’ certainly doesn’t.
‘The Race For Space’ is available from your favourite record store or online purveyor of digital downloads.
If you did not already realise it, the Unpopular advent series is a collection of some of my favourite records of the year, yet is not really organised in anything other than the very vaguest attempt at a rank order. Really, when you have laboured so long to whittle down to a shortlist of just 24 records, notions of ‘this one is better than that one’ really no longer come into it. The reality therefore is that all of these records could at some point be said to be favourites of the year. When this set came out in October it was almost immediately guaranteed a place in this list. Certainly playing it again this week in the car on my drive through dank and dark December mornings and evenings has earned it that sobriquet all over again.
There are few better records to cheer one up at this time of year than one so deliciously suffused with the spirit of soft sunshine psychedelia. ‘Cosmic Radio Station’ really could not have been more aptly titled for it is filled with the beamed in reference echoes of a myriad of names that ought to make you dream of finer places. Yes, the expected New Zealand sounds from the past are present in the likes of Straitjacket Fits, The Clean and Verlaines, yet there are also delicious tastes of Roback’s Rain Parade and Opal; vague silhouettes of ‘No Other’ or Parsons lurking in the murky middle distance; the cloak of West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band (from whose song I am assuming/hoping they took their name) artfully hung on the peg in the corner. As I said, ‘Cosmic Radio Station’ really could not have been more aptly titled.
In another year of exemplary releases from New Zealand artists, this one stands proudly towards the top of the pile.
Accordions and sweary words ahoy! Seven years ago I kind of re-discovered the genius of Simon Rivers and his Last Party / Bitter Springs groups through the magic of digital downloads. Some words were penned over here. References were made to Shena Mackay and self-destructing tapes. Reading those words again I find myself warmed by that.
And then five years ago (what is it with this five year cycle deal?) I wrote in this advent entry that “Simon Rivers is a genius”. I stand by that claim, in much the same way that Dave McCullogh once claimed that Vic Godard was God. Is that right? Time erases so many connections in my brain; makes new ones built on frayed and brittle wires, though there is also something quite appealing in that too. And yes, the Godard reference is valuable too, for there has always been something of the Subway Sect in Rivers’ work, not least via the Parisian boulevard sound of swaying accordions that suffuses much of this collection of tunes.
‘Cuttlefish and Love’s Remains’ shows that Simon Rivers remains the master of the lyrically wry and darkly humorous. We should treasure and celebrate that fact.
‘Cuttlefish and Love’s Remains’ is available from a variety of digital outlets.
And as an added bonus, some footage of Bitter Springs playing the wonderful 'Mr Hurst' live in 2014. Altogether now: "and the Bed and Breakfast sign keeps you awake all night..."
Roxy Brennan has a gleaming gem of a classic English folk voice that on its own would be something magical to cherish. Married to the structures of the songs on ‘Radisson Blue’ however it becomes something even more special. Angular, aching and awkward, the songs on this LP are the kind that tease and tear at your mind, pouring salve and salt on your wounds in equal measure. The songs itch and scratch, smooth and soften. Often in the space of the same moment. No mean feat. The progress from the eponymous collection of Two White Cranes’ recordings released in September last year is remarkable (and that set was by no means an effort lacking in class) and I for one look forward enormously to hearing more in the year ahead.
‘Radisson Blue’ is available from the Two White Cranes Bandcamp page
Some records you hear and all you can play is the game of ‘name the references’, such is the transparency of the lineage held within the songs. Others transcend that easy urge, though pinning down quite why can be a challenge. So it is with ‘Green Lanes’, a record in which I hear much of the likes of VU’s and Big Star's ‘third’s along with a smatter of ‘American Beauty’, Beach Boys, B****** and, to get more up to date, Belle and Sebastian (tell me the lovely ‘Two Vaults’ isn’t Pavement doing ‘Judy and Dream of Horses’ and I’ll tell you that you are lying to yourself and me) but which I cannot dismiss as simple, if honourable pastiche. For the songs are just too good for that. Too dreamy and yet simultaneously too rooted in the good earth. Like The Feelies, which is a reference I know you smiled wryly at.
‘Green Lanes’ is laid back yet brisk (the entire twelve tracks clock in at just a smidgeon over a half hour), ineffably cool yet warm like an Indian yellow blur on a Naphthol red ground. Rothko and Heron. Frost and Kelly. Cooper and Hoare. Ultimate Painting.
Sometimes we talk about musicians as artists, and that is quite right. What has appealed to me most about Darren Hayman over the past few years, however, is that he has been operating more as an Artist; the distinction in the capital letter being that he has appeared to explicitly explore a more conceptual approach to song-writing and record making. His artefacts are very much fully considered and executed works that become more than collections of songs. I greatly admire this approach, and the way in which Darren documents and shares his myriad explorations as an Artist who just happens to make music.
His ‘Florence’ set from late 2015 is a delicious, downbeat evocation of the city in which it was made, but it is the ‘Chants For Socialists’ album from February of this year that is my choice for inclusion in this advent series. An exploration of William Morris’ text, the album was recorded with a troupe of exceptional volunteers at three of Morris’ historical homes, and is a timely and welcome artefact that shines a light on some of the political frustrations felt by what, by year’s end, appears perhaps to be a not insignificant portion of the UK populous. Darren’s own text about the record, which you can read here, is certainly worth more of your time than my meagre words, but the following quote really stood out for me and echoes what I feel about the record perfectly: "I saw these as ‘emergency’ protest songs, something to draw on in times of strife. I think we are in troubled times. I regard these as useful lyrics."
‘Chants For Socialists’ is far more than just a useful record.