'Take Me Home' from How the West Was Won by Peter Perrett
Do you remember how earlier in this series we said, more than once, that if there were any themes (there aren’t) then one of them might be that of (white) men reconnecting with the medium of recorded music in their middle age? Well, if there were an award for winner of that particular category (there isn’t) it would certainly go to Peter Perrett.
Did you see it coming? I mean, it was a shot as from nowhere that the former Only Ones singer should emerge with a new solo record in 2017 but that was as nothing compared to the splendid shock of just how terrific it ended up being. From the first opening riff references to ‘Sweet Jane’ to its final breaths of guitar notes that could be lips kissing ‘New Day Dawning’, How The West Was Won is a ravishingly full bloodied immersion in rock and roll. It is unapologetic. It is celebratory. It is also intelligent enough to remind itself not to take it all too seriously, throwing in throwaway nods and winks that cast a sprinkling of dark knowing humour. How The West Was Won in many ways acts as some kind of splendid brethren to Americana, where Perrett picks up on Davies’ foundations and spoils the party with a Punky sneer. Perhaps no surprise then to discover it was mostly recorded at KONK studios. As we are won’t to suggest at times: It all fits.
Alexis nails it in his splendid review for The Manchester Guardian when he suggests that Perrett "has pulled off something genuinely remarkable here”, for How The West Was Won is certainly a remarkable record. Remarkable in the context of Perrett’s back story, yes, of course, but remarkable too for simply being such a marvellous collection of brilliant songs so perfectly recorded. Would we love this record in spite of its history? Yes we would. Would the record exist if not for that history? Well no, of course not. The two are impossible to untangle, and why would you want to anyway? So How The West Was Won is drenched in the stench of excess, ego and selfish introspection to the point of near-extinction but is also offset with the scent of escape and the faintest glimmer of redemption. It all fittingly slips to its conclusion with ‘Take Me Home’, a glorious tale that captures the almost desperate conflict between the desire to belong with the unquenchable need to be separate. ‘Take Me Home’ is the quest to return to a centre which is continually just out of reach and not-quite possible to define or grasp. ‘Home’ is here, there, nowhere; the place we simultaneously yearn to return to and desperately desire to escape from. As such it captures where How The West Was Won may sit in the Peter Perrett story: Perhaps one last perfect point of conclusion or perhaps one stepping off point for brighter futures. One rather hopes it is the latter, but either way we are lucky to have such a magnificent artefact of rock and roll perfection. Remarkable, indeed.
'Wear Black' from Goths by The Mountain Goats
The Mountain Goats followed the terrific wrestling-themed Beat the Champ set of 2015 with an entire album exploring the (Pop)cultural phenomenon of Goth in 2017. Of course. And of course too John Darnielle is far too clever and/or marvellously awkward to pull a trick so clumsy and obvious as making such a record in the accepted style of Goth. I mean, there is no doubt that he could if he wanted, but that would almost certainly result in a record inevitably filled with cliche and predictability. Some might say that there are few things so predictable as a Mountain Goats record, but this is clearly true only to the point of saying yes, well, maybe and maybe not. There are certainly a string of early to mid period Mountain Goats records where threads of commonality weave throughout in terms of abrupt and rudimentary recording techniques lending much of the landscape a similarly blasted and bleak prospect. That’s fine though. I have no quarrel with that, and the earnest, viscerally intelligent Darnielle of those records remains one of my very favourite recording artists. The Mountain Goats of more recent times however are far more varied and apply a touch which is never as light and as measured as on Goths.
So Goths is a Goth vision refracted through the lenses of its ‘80s counterpoint of lush sophisticated Pop. Goths is Andrew Eldritch masquerading as Martin Fry (and/or vice versa) and Gene Loves Jezebel courted by Hall and Oates. Except even that is a little disingenuous, for Mountain Goats here fill their songs not so much with synthetic technology but often with the natural sounds of brushed drums and acoustic bass. There is space. There is light. Naturally I will resist suggesting that this creates a sound that is more ‘authentic’ (for surely such a notion would be absurd in the context of songs about a cultural identity which is so carefully drawn in artifice and the dark arts of concealment) but it is a sound that is warm, oddly comforting and fittingly mature.
Finest of all is the beautiful ‘Wear Black’ which is all Sisterhood snakebite polished by Scritti Politti and accompanied by heavenly gospel choirs. It’s the Batcave decorated with tinfoil and fairy lights; the gloomth of Walpole’s Strawberry Hill made over by Philippe Stark. ‘Wear Black’ both reinforces the cliche of Goth costume and neatly pops the bubble of that stereotype: An acknowledgement and repudiation in the same breath, if you will. Darnielle sings in his finest angelic tones: “check me out, I can’t blend in. Check me out, I’m young and ravishing” and if there was ever a line that succinctly captured the essence of fashion as youthful expression then I either have not heard it yet or cannot remember. Given my age it is entirely possible that the later explanation is the true one, but nevertheless…
‘Wear Black’ then sets Goth as Malevich cast his black square on canvas: Goth, perhaps more than any Youth Cultural movement, invites us to escape the dead-weight of the world into ones of fantasy and illusion. Yet it also opens doors to glimpse the universal human frailties those fantasies embrace. Of course it does. How could it not? Lives, with their realities and dreams, are simply complex, after all.
'Strike A Match' from Strike A Match by Sacred Paws
Sacred Paws quite rightly won the Scottish Album Of The Year award for 2017’s astonishing Strike A Match but do you know I have been startled to see how few other ‘albums of the year’ lists I have seen it on. There is surely no good reason for this other than the curse of records released in the first halves of years always struggling to be remembered by a music ‘press’ with notoriously short term memories (memories that apparently can’t keep anything stored past this week’s PR penned ‘reviews’). I plead as guilty as the next person in this regard but my goodness Strike A Match remains firmly in my grab bag of records guaranteed to make me twist and shout, shimmy and shake. Inside of course. Always inside.
In many ways Strike A Match is the perfect album. Ten tracks, five-a-side. A shade over a half hour in total length. No band name or title on the sleeve, just some beautiful two-colour abstract geometric prints on reversed board. The prints are a bit like Matisse paper cuts in monochrome. Positive. Negative. Dancing. Just like the music.
It is impossible not to begin twitching with delight as soon as the needle hits this record. Immediately into a stride it never once loses, Strike A Match tosses its key ingredients of pin sharp guitar rivulets, hypnotic darting rhythms, sombre synths, ebullient horns and vocals that are cool yet warm, strong yet charming, disarming. Think Young Marble Giants playing the soundtrack to a Haitian vodou ceremony or ESG hosting a dance party in George Square. Perhaps.
The title track is simply sensational; three and a half minutes of barely but crucially just-so contained exuberance. Somehow it feel faster than it actually is, for its pace is such that it allows space for each of its elements to breathe deeply. It opens almost empty before building layers of rhythm and bursts of light. ’Strike A Match’ is a song where each element supports the thrust of the whole. Darkness, emptiness, connectedness, love, light, delight, hope, anticipation, redemption. All in a blink of an eye and a hip shimmy shake. The last minute in particular is just magical, leaping off into a collection of refrains played by guitars, drums, horns and handclaps; each performing their own syncopated little dances within their own private parties, at one with the whole yet almost simultaneously oblivious. Lift the needle and place it again. Press ‘repeat’. Leap in and lose yourself again and again and again and again.
'Fear Is Like a Forest' from Lotta Sea Lice by Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile
Entirely possible that this entry references the most mainstream record of the 2017 advent and that Lotta Sea Lice is perhaps the least Unpopular of all the albums I have loved this year. When the idea of a collaboration between this particular Courtney and Kurt first drifted across my consciousness I admit it did not fill me with any extraordinary sense of expectation. For whilst I have listened to and greatly enjoyed solo records by both, nothing previously hinted that Lotta Sea Lice would be so marvellously greater than the sum of its two parts.
I have no idea if there might be some on-going creative chemistry between Vile and Barnett but the proof of Lotta Sea Lice is that something magical happened in the process of making this record and I sincerely hope they make more of it. The interplay between the two throughout is marvellously natural: A melding of Gen X freak stoner minds swapping guitar licks and poetry across great divides. Album opener ‘Over Everything’ opened our minds early, its epic six minutes of give and take between the two essentially laying the blueprint, sketching the premise of the entire set in strokes that were at once striking and subtle. Keep it simple, stupid. Keep it stupid, simple.
In honesty I kinda keep expecting Lotta Sea Lice to give up giving out, but it keeps on rolling, unveiling new textures and simple treasures each and every time I listen. An inflection here, a pause for breath there. A bent guitar note everywhere and nowhere. Okay, okay, maybe you picked up the oblique Neil Young reference there and yeah yeah, its too easy to be casual about this but I do think Lotta Sea Lice could be some Crazy Horse record beamed in on a Tardis trip from the seventies. Barnett makes the nod too in her own notes about their cover of partner Jen Cloher’s ‘Fear Is Like A Forest’, and oh my it’s a tremendous moment on a terrific album. Filled with lackadaisical twilight porch rocking gloom, it is a song that trawls the depths and harvests blinking lights of hope despite it all. And Honest to God that’s surely something worth having in this year more than any.
'Rookie Dreaming' from Honest Life by Courtney Marie Andrews
Courtney Marie Andrews was new to me this year and might possibly have passed me by entirely were it not for a mention by Legends Of Country over on The Twitter. Interest piqued, I had myself a little listen to ‘Rookie Dreaming’ and instantly found myself head over heels. Now there is a distinct possibility that inclusion in this advent series is breaking the rules, since the Honest Life set first saw release in the USA in 2016. A UK release, however, did not surface until early 2017 so that’s all right then, isn’t it? And anyway, I make the rules up as I go along, so hey ho and on we go.
Some people have suggested that Honest Life is a little one-paced but I do not see that as a problem. I do not remember anyone levelling that criticism at Blue, for example. And no, Courtney is just a little bit too Country to be Joni and Honest Life is not quite even almost Blue (well what is?), but nevertheless its a tangential reference we ought not to completely ignore. Album opener ‘Rookie Dreamer’ is certainly one of the more marginally up-beat cuts on the record, and if you would be hard pressed to call it jaunty exactly, then it nevertheless saunters across the dance floor in a winking haze of whisky and petticoats. Rooted in the Americana of classic Country it is a song also that reaches transatlantic tendrils and acknowledges the universal essence of such soulful expressions. So we have references to “all the paintings in Paris” and “the sunrise in Barcelona”and if those are references tinged with a certain regret, it is a regret that holds within it the promise of future redemption.
‘Rookie Dreaming’ is about the slipping away of Youth and the entry into whatever comes after: That transition to adulthood that proves elusive to any definitive labelling. ‘Rookie Dreaming’ is the sound of a songwriter singing an acknowledgment of change; is a woman proclaiming both her independence and her sense of belonging to the world she moves through. ‘Rookie Dreaming’ slips though the cracks and illuminates the corners; puts down tentative anchors that might one day snag and hold but that for now are trailing and touching like fingers touched momentarily or lips brushed lightly on hair. Both it, and the entirety of Honest Life touched me deeply this year and have left me eager to hear what comes next.
'Tin' from Permo by Spinning Coin
I have been looking forward to a full-length from Glasgow’s Spinning Coin ever since I heard the exquisite ‘Albany’ on their debut cassette back in April 2015. Actually, I am sure that Brogues had alerted me to them prior to this, but it was Stephen Pastel who added the tape to a bag of records in Monorail during that particular Easter trip Up North. Two years. Where does the time go to, eh? Well in Spinning Coin’s case it was a couple of delicious 7”s, one of which was an updated version of ‘Albany’ and the other ‘Raining On Hope Street’. ‘Hope Street’ if anything was even finer that Albany; all East Village minor chords and feathery Big Star vocals, it was like Teenage Fanclub serenading from the mist.
Now I believe that Spinning Coin played shows with Girl Ray this year, and that is entirely appropriate for both feel like groups who delight in being informed by sounds that are slightly out of whack, by an aesthetic that whilst eclectic remains clearly and cleverly defined. Yes, yes, for the poor old souls like me and my generation the touchstones are Postcard and The Pastels (Permo is on the Pastels curated Geographic subsidiary of Domino and much of it was produced by Saint Edwyn at his Helmsdale studio) but so what? Paint me some more contemporary references and I’ll willingly turn them into my own in desperate attempts to appear With It. Whatever It happens to be.
Clearly substantial parts of those last two sentences are lies.
Let’s be clear though, Spinning Coin might sound sometimes slight and fey yet they can also be slyly seedy and careless. As in, they couldn’t care less what you think, not that notes are tossed around without a thought (though they manage to pull off that tough conjuring trick too). ‘Tin’ is a case in point, where they come on like Yummy Fur in a blender with Urusei Yatsura (the band, not the manga series. Though come to think of it…). Again, this probably shows my age and those of another age are going all ‘WTF?’ and other assorted acronyms. Plus, yeah yeah, yeah, I promise I will stop with the alliteration the day that Pop stops being all about the repetition of sound and feeling.
‘Tin’ makes me grin and bear it. Permo helps me luxuriate in the pleasures of the past today whilst looking forward to their even brighter tomorrows. Spin on. Spin on.
'Cutting Shapes' from Earl Grey by Girl Ray
This may come as something as a shock, but if I am brutally honest Girl Ray’s Earl Grey set was one of my biggest disappointments of 2017. Don’t get me wrong, it is an excellent record filled with many tiny jewels, but somehow I was hoping for more. Maybe last year’s magical 7" ‘Trouble’ and the preview ‘singles’ of ‘Preacher’ and ‘Stupid Things’ set expectations too high for the remainder of the set to reach, but whatever, I have to admit that rarely did I play ‘Earl Grey’ through in its entirety. Why the inclusion in this advent series then if it was such a disappointment? Well, to be fair, there is enough in Earl Grey even as it is to put most young new groups to shame. Which is likely a most unfair statement to make because let’s be entirely frank and admit that I have next to no awareness of any other young new group with whom I might make comparison so perhaps really I should shut up like mealy mouthed fifty somethings ought.
Here’s the thing though: Girl Ray slip neatly next to Goon Sax as being somehow instilled with a spirit that is splendidly unexpected in groups of just-about-still-teenagers. By which I mean I hear something of the spirit of Postcard and/or The Raincoats and Marine Girls within these grooves and that is certainly something to celebrate. Entirely possible of course that the girls of Girl Ray might mumble ‘who now? What now?’ before telling me in no uncertain terms that their references are instead (insert list of contemporary Pop sounds of which I have not the slightest inkling). In reality either parallel universe is fine. Inhabit whichever best fits and hop, skip and/or jump betwixt the two as the mood takes you.
Like Hinds (who they also put me in mind of at times) Girl Ray hop, skip and/or jump with marvellous (un)ease. It is their disarming only-just-discordant barely-held-together-with-sellotape sound that makes Girl Ray so tempting and I don’t think that’s in evidence any clearer than within the terrific ‘Cutting Shapes’. Starting off with just Poppy Hankin’s almost-out-of-tune vocal over a plonked piano, ‘Cutting Shapes’ slopes off down an alleyway into a darkening, glowering middle distance of guitar and organ accompaniement before entering a dense forest of swirling noises made by those clay model members of The Velvet Underground of B&S’s ‘Expectations’. It ends abruptly at a brick wall graffitied with ‘Girl Ray’ picked out in glitter.
Let’s just hope that Poppy and her mates know how to vault its heights, because there are any number of intriguing avenues for them to explore in the future. We should certainly hang around to see what they make of them.