Well, there’s another year done then, and in the tradition of the Unpopular festive celebration, here are links to various musical collections put together over the year(s). At the time of writing it is entirely unclear as to whether the monthly Unpopular mixes will continue in 2018 for it increasingly feels rather like a straightjacket (and one that a dwindling number of people find attraction in, it must be said). I rather think it might all fade away in the year ahead, or at least become something more organic and less driven by the rigid structures of the calendar. Perhaps also the focus may shift more to retrospection as I glance over at shelved records and CDs and think it may be advisable to re-acquaint myself with some of these treasures rather than be constantly looking for New. Perhaps the Unpopular computer expiration of The Thursday Before Christmas (so that this is composed/edited mostly from iPad) will encourage me to Do More Things. Perhaps too I will explore the new in the old as I perhaps escape down 1930s rabbit holes. Idly I wonder are there any records from the 1930s? What sorts of records would the those Bright Young Things of the 1920s have listened to in the 1930s? Or were they all dead by then? Metaphorically or actually…
I digress. And anyway I rather expect everyone (well, all three of you) has immediately skimmed over my words and leapt directly to the download links below. All of which will, in the tradition of these things, disappear like the ghost of Christmases past before 2018 has rung in its first tentative steps.
All the 2017 Unpopular mixes
All the 2016 Unpopular mixes
All the 2015 Unpopular mixes
All the 2014 Unpopular mixes
All the 2013 Unpopular mixes
'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.