It is surely a reflection on my age and the accelerated speeding of time when I say it feels like only yesterday that I was excited not only to be writing sleeve notes for reissues of the three albums that The Orchids recorded for Sarah records, but also at the news that the group had reformed and were set to play, write and record again. To realise that in reality a decade has passed is frankly terrifying.
In that decade however I am delighted to say that The Orchids have released another three albums, the most recent of which was this years’ typically gorgeous ‘Beatitude #9’ for the Spanish Acuarela imprint. Infused with their trademark supple groove, on ‘Beatitude #9’ The Orchids again showed a remarkable ability to make deceptively soft, bittersweet records brimful of emotion and life. Listened to outside of the inescapable context of Sarah Records, one could certainly suggest that The Orchids always had the necessary skills to escape the Indie ghetto. Certainly ‘Beatitude #9’ sounded in places much more likely to appeal to fans of smooth, seductive, soulful dance music than to devotees of brittle, watered-down twee self-pity. But then in reality there were plenty of artists on the original Sarah roster who didn't fit that sterotype, and if the ‘From Hello To Goodbye’ exhibition (including the premiere of the ‘My Secret World’ film) in Bristol helped place some of the mediated myths within context then The Orchids’ live performance was a certainly a splendid highlight of a wonderful event.
‘Beatitude #9’ was peppered with gorgeous moments, including a lovely nod to the Lazy Perfection of their past with Pauline Hynds joining on the excellent ‘Good Words (Are Never Enough)’. Elsewhere the album was equally splendid, and from the shimmering, blissful ’Something’s Going On' though the neat sunburst pop shuffle of ‘The Coolest Thing’ to the mournful, Strands-like beauty of the album closing ‘We Made A Mess’, ‘Beatitude #9’ barely skipped a beat. Like a good single Malt whisky, ‘Beatitude #9’ proved to be an album to take your time over, an album to give oneself over to and to luxuriate in.
One of the most pointless exercises is to draw up lists of ‘all time favourite’ anythings. Such things necessarily drift with the tides of our lives, and this is what makes them so elusive. If pressed however I would admit that The Wolfhounds would be on such a list of musical artists more often that not. The singles and albums they recorded, from the piercing ‘Cut The Cake’ in 1986 to the glowering ‘Attitude’ of 1990 were universally magnificent and criminally ignored and underrated.
Their return in 2005 was a great delight, and their set at the 2006 ‘Still Doing It For Fun’ nights at the ICA remains burnt on my retinas as a spectacular explosion of breathtaking poise and noise. There have been singular releases in the intervening years since then of course, and it was these that formed the backbone of their first album in 24 years. ‘Middle Aged Freaks’ bristled with the spiky intelligence of The Wolfhounds' previous incarnation and sounded in no way like a group settling happily into their armchairs. Instead there was a sense of a group who had matured, yes, but who remained infuriated by the society in which they found themselves. As unsettled and uncomfortable in Cameron’s UK as they had been in Thatcher’s, The Wolfhounds were determined not to be quiet about it. Like Seaford Mods (in fact I think it was The Wolfhounds’ Dave Callahan* who first tipped me to Seaford Mods back in April 2013) or Flies On You, The Wolfhounds had the air of a literate irritant in the side of mainstream culture - not that mainstream culture noticed, or cared.
Me, I cared a great deal. From the simultaneously euphoric and splenetic ‘Cheer Up’ (itself a feature in last year’s advent series) through the sky scraping ‘Anthem’ and the gloriously sparse ’The Slide’ to the hypnotic, motorik ’The Ten Commandments of Public Life’, ‘Middle Aged Freaks’ sounded both like the return of a prodigal son and the re-establishment of an alternative order into the universe. Stunning.
Was there ever a more perfect summer Pop record than The Hit Parade’s ‘Cornish Pop Songs’? Not in 2014 there wasn’t. Those that know know that Julian Henry has been crafting jewels of Pop perfection since time immemorial (or at least since the mid 1980s which is essentially the same thing) and ‘Cornish Pop Songs’ was the latest in a stream of perfectly poised records. If it had been an album of songs written about anywhere in the world then I’m certain I would have loved it, but I will be honest and admit that it was in no small part the context of the songs that meant that, frankly ‘Cornish Pop Songs' was a record that could hardly have failed to wrap me around its little finger and squeeze my heart until it ached.
There is something magical about the end of the world (or at least the end of England) that really does grab a hold of your soul. Something in the juxtapositions of the bleak, wild moors and seascapes and the cosy closeness of copses and the huddled-togetherness of the coastal villages. Something in the mystical histories and the contrariness. Something in the mizzle cloaked cliffs and the sun bleached sands. Magical, either way.
So did you need to have at least a minimal knowledge of the geographical context to adore ‘Cornish Pop Songs’? Of course not. For whilst little bits of local colour helped move things along (Mr Stevenson would be the Newlyn fish merchant for example, whilst the garage in Drift would be on the A30 out of Penzance - blink and you’ll miss it), these were fragments of personal geographic reference that rooted the songs in context, thereby allowing them to flower as blooms of universal familiarity. Julian Henry’s songs were a glorious collision between melancholic memorabilia and blissful euphoria. ‘Cornish Pop Songs’ then was both a paean to a specific, magical landscape and a celebration of the simple, essential ingredients of great Pop. Like sonic representations of Peter Benson novels, these songs were OF Cornwall but ABOUT love, loss and distance (both physical and through time). It was as close to perfect a Pop record as I heard in a long time.
There are moments in one’s life when one feels acutely aware of one’s age, or at the very least of the ageing process. These moments are often wrapped up around conversations with younger generations where the lack of shared cultural reference points becomes acutely apparent. The same goes for when one is younger of course - when one feels that gaping void between where you are and where your elders seem to be, cloaked in mythic memorabilia, feigning appreciation when all one really feels is the dread of reaching that place oneself. There was something of this in Strand Of Oaks’ ‘Heal’, or at least there was for me as a listener.
Album opener ‘Goshen’ 97’ was a remarkable song, full of the ecstatic delight of being young and having the spotlight of music’s possibilities shone into one’s eyes; blinded by the white light of magic. For me of course the reference points were all wrong - too much long hair, beards, Smashing Pumpkins and Noisy Rock, but goodness the sound was sensational, not least thanks to J Mascis’ guitar providing such a glorious Pop cacophony in the same way as it once did on Buffalo Tom’s ‘Impossible’. And here’s the point I guess: the spirit transcended the references, closed the gaps of individual context and created a glow of supreme ecstasy. The rub being that it was precisely the specificity of references (singing Pumpkins in the mirror, dad’s old tape machine, smoking menthols) that allowed that transcendence to occur. Without those things songs run the risk of being bland generalities without conviction. It’s a tough juggling act, but ‘Goshen ’97’ certainly accomplished it with aplomb.
Elsewhere on ‘Heal’ there was a similar sense of conviction and an artfully composed illusion of authenticity (this is a mighty compliment, I should add, for I do not believe in the myth of ‘authenticity’ in mass mediated art forms). The emotionally draining ‘JM’ was another potent hymn to the power of music; this time a tense struggle between the memory of youthful surrender to the seductive dark sides of raging teen rebellion and the growing adult awareness of where that might ultimately lead. It’s that aforementioned gaping void that ‘JM’ inhabits, throwing out lines of hope and despair in equal measure. That void was there on ‘Shut In’ too: a song that reminded me of the elegiac qualities of Big Country at their finest (there were strong echoes of their ‘Restless Natives’ soundtrack) and indeed that 1980s feel was prevalent in a lot of ‘Heal’, where synths came on like Simple Minds in their ‘Sons and Fascination’ pomp, whilst on occasion you could almost hear the ghost of 'The Joshua Tree’ haunting the corridors of a run-down Mid Western town, kicking through the mud with Springsteen.
There are those who will tell you that those kinds of 1980’s references were best exemplified by the War On Drugs set from this year, and whilst there is something in that, for me ‘Heal’ played the finer hand. Compared to ‘Lost In The Dream’, ‘Heal’ sounded equally assured yet appealingly less sure of itself. It sounded more scuffed around the edges and with a soul more scoured and gouged. I loved it.
New Zealand has certainly been something of a roll in recent times, with numerous placings in my various end of year lists of pleasure. French For Rabbits first cropped up on my radar with their utterly beguiling ‘Claimed By The Sea’ EP and if 2013 was marked by an apparent stony silence, it would appear that the year was in fact spent preparing for the ‘Spirits’ album that dropped in the second half of 2014. To say it was eagerly awaited would be an understatement, for ‘Claimed By The Sea’ was such a charming artefact that threaded its sweet roots deep into my soul.
‘Spirits’ did not disappoint, with ten pieces of whispered hymns sounding like dark corners of forests and coastal pathways shrouded in mist. From the middle distance spectral forms ebb and flow with a glimmer of seductive promise. It’s a promise that feels so real yet hovers always just out of reach.
If you are ever at the lost gardens of Heligan in Cornwall there is a crystal grotto where a gloomy, delicious dampness pervades the air even on a sparking summer afternoon. French for Rabbits sound for all the world like that grotto, and that is no bad thing. If you wanted more tangible references though, well, I will show my age now and suggest that French For Rabbits conjure thoughts of the likes of Kendra Smith or Hope Sandoval. These are parallels that I know have already been drawn, and that does not diminish them. Certainly one could have imagined ’Spirits’ sneaking out on 4AD in the late 1980s and not looking or sounding out of place. It recalled at times too the splendid sound of Virginia Astley, Heidi Berry, or of that lovely single Sara Davis recorded for the September label. Or if you need your references more up to date(ish) you might hear a splash of Beach House and a sliver of their New Zealand contemporaries Tiny Ruins. All of which is pretty fine company to be in, whichever way you cut it.