The Kinks, “The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society” (1968)

Nationalism gets a bit of a bad rep these days, what with Brexit and Trump and the populist movement espousing divide-and-conquer moral proclamations that engender a sense of disenfranchisement on one side and a sense of superiority on the other. But my boss at work has been jamming to the Kinks a lot lately, and I’d always taken them to be a quaint, passé British band in a style that had long-since become unstylish. I mean, didn’t Edgar Wright use their songs in Hot Fuzz, this decade’s great lampooning of little England culture?

Thus, the last thing I expected when I spun “TKATVGPS” for the first time in its entirety was a sense of warmth, a sort of nostalgic glow for times gone past, but there we go. This is a fantastic album, straddling the two kinds of music-making that were going on at the time (Beatles-style studio experimentation, and simple collections of pop-songs). Obviously I already knew the opener (although I’d never appreciated its commitment to tempo and chorus, fitting in what could be a 4/5 minute ballad into a breathless 3 minute palate cleanser; I’d also never considered the fact that it might be lightly satirical… Something about Ray Davies’ delivery of “God save little shops, china cups and virginity” is just askew enough to make it seem like a joke).

The songs that follow are of a similar ilk, mixing tumbling folk chords, a foregrounded drum section, and a slightly nasally delivery from Davies. They all slot together pleasingly, every song bar one (“Last of the Steam Powered Trains”, a working of a blues standard) coming in at under three minutes. Most of them are, in some way, concerned with the past, or a rejection of modern life. Some (“Animal Farm”, “Phenomenal Cat”) skew slightly too far to the simplistic, but these are rare, and criticising this album for being simplistic seems a bit disingenuous since the album is about a desire for a simpler life anyway.

It also, interestingly, has a plainspoken working-class bent to it, especially on the track “Do You Remember Walter?”, which laments one of Davies’ old friends getting “fat and married”, the implication being that Walter has sacrificed something of his individuality and personality by settling into a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle. “All Of My Friends Were There” is the most upsetting and explicitly personal track on the album, with lyrics that, read straight, seem irredeemably bleak. Yet musically it’s a jaunty, traditional number, with a mocking sing-song voice and a tumbling rhythm section.

It’s full of little moments like that, that catch you. The album finds the perfect coda in closer “People Just Take Pictures of Each Other”, which acknowledges, in a slightly resigned way, that desire for permanence we all seek in a world that is largely impermanent; it simultaneously runs contrary to the themes of the previous 14 songs, and bolsters them.

It seems that that wistful desire for times gone by isn’t as simple as first thought.

Animal Collective, “Fall Be Kind” (2009)

Apologies for the day off. One day I might explain why, but for now I’m fairly confident in saying it’s a decent reason.

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You could have forgiven my three boys, Avey, Panda and Geologist, for taking five years off after their relatively undisputed masterpiece, “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, an album of such colossal, multitudinous glee and fun and joy that, listening to it for the first time is (in my sincere opinion) one of the most purely enjoyable musical discoveries you can have. It unfolds outwards in front of you like a kaleidoscope, it spins like a Catherine wheel, it moves like an untamed ruckus. It is a cavalcade of sounds you can’t not like.

One day I will write about it at length. However, lately I have found myself drawn to the more free-form, floating tones of their companion EP to that album, “Fall Be Kind”. That they released these two discs in a year is nothing short of a miracle, a stunning one-two. The whole album-EP cycle is one that they’ve got down pat, and the content on their EP’s ranks with some of their best work in general (“Prospect Hummer” is a top 5 AnCo release, easy). But surely after the absolute blowout of “MPP”, you’d think they have no juice in the tank.

Well, after the gorgeous ethereal strings of the opener, “Graze”, Panda assures us; “let’s not worry”. And we’re away. Tinkling piano, production that sounds like it came from the office of St Peter, and honey-dripping vocals give way to a mid-song transition that arrives like a parting in the clouds of heaven… And then, a folk stomp, some cello, some sampled panpipes (from Romanian folk musician Gheorghe Zamfir), and an overriding sense of bliss. This is a song to pull back the curtains to, the soundtrack to a recent shift in perspective. It is unspeakably lovely.

This tone continues onto “What Would I Want? Sky”, a live favourite, that somehow manages to work that unwieldy title, question mark and all, into a chorus that you can’t help but sing along to. Once more sampling a song (“Unbroken Chain” by the Grateful Dead), it nevertheless tumbles forward with a logic and grace that’s truly Anco’s own, with heavily pitched cymbal smashes and a rotating vocal yelp. “Bleed” is a darker cut, with ominous spoken word giving way to shifting muddy tones and a refrain that goes “I must bleed”. Yet that slightly awestruck sense is still there, in the way the song feels slowed down, blissed out.

“On A Highway” is the most conventionally arranged thing on here, with guitars that recall a little of the sound they would end up plundering on their follow-up, “Centipede HZ”, and synths that shift around like moving tiles in a difficult videogame. With a slight tweak, this could probably be a radio-friendly pop song. Then it ends with the rousing tumult of “I Think I Can”, once more a rousing stomp that sounds more in the vein of their work on “Feels”.

And that’s it. Lyrically, all of these songs are about escape, be that escaping from something, or using something as an escape; whether it’s the songwriting process, or into daydreams, or pain, or driving away, or music, or a children’s book, all of these songs have that commonality.

Yet the cumulative effect could not be more different; these songs have a magnificent, grounded quality, and listening to them can leave one feeling lucky. This is AnCo at their most wide-eyed and attentive, and they have crystallised those qualities into unforgettable songs.

Belle and Sebastian, “How To Solve Your Human Problems (Part 1)” (2017)

(CONTENT/TRIGGER WARNING: BRIEF DISCUSSION AND DESCRIPTION OF SUICIDE)

In Which I Go Full Rock Critic™ Now And Talk About A Band With The Kind Of Intimacy and Warmth That Should Be Reserved Only For Close Family Members and Significant Others

Belle and Sebastian were the band I lost my virginity to. I don’t mean that I played them while I lost my virginity (Merzbow, actually) but they were the band that opened my eyes to the wonders of music. The way I discovered them was worthy of a Belle and Sebastian song in and of itself. I still remember the dreary afternoon, where having recently picked up lead singer Stuart Murdoch’s autobiography in a charity shop (despite knowing nothing of the band), I asked my ethics teacher (cool guy, Welsh) if he’d heard of them. He stopped and asked if I was taking the piss, to which I said no and showed him the paperback. Turns out they were his favourite band, and I should listen to the Boy With The Arab Strap right away.

Off I went, and listened, and… You know that bit in 2001: A Space Odyssey where Bowman gets sucked into the Technicolor Dream Pit? Imagine a really shit, post-pubescent, “nervous yet cocky young man sitting in an ethics classroom on a rainy Wednesday procrastinating from an essay about Kant” version of that sequence. I was in love. I played their infectious but emotionally resonant songs over, and over, and over again throughout the ensuing weeks, getting to know their singles, the albums, EP’s, live cuts, their Peel Session, in the way you get to know that one person you’ve probably met who, after an hour or so in their company you feel like you’ve known them forever.

I can dispense with the ironic posturing here to proclaim, hand on heart, that they are the band that mean the most to me in terms of things I’ve been through with them. When I had my bout of teenage depression, If You’re Feeling Sinister (the album I am least uncomfortable calling my all-time favourite) pulled me through. When I was navigating the various complexities and deflations of my first year of university, their EP’s were some of the music I relied on for understanding and warmth. When a girl in my halls attempted suicide, the veins on her forearm open like fraying guitar strings, and I sought counselling for the trauma, I remember sitting outside the support office with my hardback copy of Paul Whitelaw’s history of the band tucked into my oversized winter coat.

So, yes, they are a part of me and I will always support them. However, like all people you lose your virginity to, the chances of you remaining with them grow slimmer over time. I have moved onto other loves, other dalliances, and whilst I revisit them and remember them, I also know to make time for my musical present as well as my musical past.

I can also un-deify the band to the point where I can see that after 2006’s excellent “The Life Pursuit”, the quality control has slipped. Since then, they’ve become a band equally capable of putting out immediate “turn-up-the-volume-and-get-yr-bloody-ears-on-this-now” bangers (“I Didn’t See It Coming”, “Nobody’s Empire”, “Enter Sylvia Plath”) and naff faff-y paff as disappointing as an unused condom, past its use-by-date, lying on top of a public bin in an abandoned shopping centre. I’ve never hated and loved a record in equal measure like I have their previous disc.

So I was hesitant and also excited for their latest release, a collection of three EP’s (harking back to arguably their strongest collection of work) released one a month from December through to February. Their first single, “We Were Beautiful”, had a certain charm, although I found it didn’t hold up to repeated listens, the Aphex-y drum beat not holding the melodies together like I thought it did the first couple of spins.

So I am truly sorry to report that this EP is… Disappointing. In places utterly awful (the fourth track, “The Girl Doesn’t Get It” is like a CBeebies jingle but worse), in other places utterly forgettable (closer “Everything Is Now” is the least memorable song they’ve ever composed). Mid-EP track “Fickle Season” is just about bearable, though it’s probably the least effective anti-war song I’ve ever heard (the flute really isn’t the instrument for that kind of thing).

The one track I thought had the potential to become a Belle and Sebastian Best Of candidate, opener “Sweet Dew Lee”, is a rehash of a standout on their previous album, “Perfect Couples”. Seriously, it’s got the same melodies, it’s sung by Stevie Jackson, and it’s got an identical lead-in to the chorus (maybe one note at the end is missing). It’s catchy, and fun, and it sees the band reckoning with their past in a way that’s refreshing and new, but to someone with more unwavering critical faculties than I, it’s indefensible.

But I still bought it on vinyl. I cried a little at Stuart’s liner notes (they are probably the best liner notes the band have done, and they’ve done some crackers), and I’ve put it on my little display shelf. Next week, I’m booking a meeting with a tattooist to have my first tattoo, the fox that appears on the disc of “Sinister”, just above my left wrist. A stray bit of chorus from one of their songs will pop into my head before then.

Sometimes what you know, and what you feel, can be very different, and that doesn’t matter. I know that they’re not the best band in the world. But because I feel so strongly for them, I also know that it doesn’t matter. Nothing, not even an underwhelming EP, can undo all that they’ve done for me, the times I’ve danced and cried (sometimes at the same time) to their music, the joy I’ve got from showing them to other people, the immediate affinity I feel with others who are also fans. For all the good the head does, it is still the heart that acts as the divining rod through life. It might cause trouble, disruption, grief and woe, but it also leads to the most beautiful and treasured moments of our life. It is an unstoppable force but the most invaluable. And it stretches far far beyond the realms of music.

 

Candy Claws, “In The Dream Of Sea Life”, (2009)

I’m currently typing this at quarter to seven in the morning, waiting for a train. This is the earliest I’ve been up (and active) in a few months, at the very least. I also didn’t get to sleep until 1, and I woke up for an hour at 4, so I’m flying by the seat of my pants and likely to crash and die in a dramatic fashion.

I am, however, listening to the album “In The Dream of Sea Life” by the noise pop/shoegaze band Candy Claws, and boy is it doing the same job as three espressos without the horrible sense of deflation around 4PM. I can’t think of an album more individually tailored to my tastes. On the first track alone you’ve got a slow-build, like a diver emerging from underwater, before partition walls of joyous noise burst through, then dissipate, then burst through again. Vocalist Ryan Hover is more of an accompaniment to the instrumentation, although his wistful tone and audible repetition of the song’s title, “Diving Knife”, evokes cutting someone free from rigging and saving them from drowning.

Subsequent songs work through a heady mixture of pure pop melody, folk chords turning inside out like psychedelic bubbles rising to the surface of a bathtub (or the knotted bark of a tree), acoustic stomps mixed with deep electronic tones, abrasion coloured pink. This is an album content to start on one path, take a left-turn into a digression, and call that the rest of the song. It’s alive with the whims of its two creators, Hover and Kay Bertholf, and yet it maintains a tight control throughout. It’s impossible to guess where it’s going (even after repeated listens), and then when you’ve got a handle on some kind of structure or movement, it slips away from you again.

Some of the chords (such as on Catamaran) recall early Animal Collective (this would make a great, skyward facing deep-sea-blue joyful companion to the earthy, anxious ochres of their “Here Comes The Indian”). The whole album feels liberated and unbridled, and the central refrains of most of the tracks evoke freedom and the dissolution of boundaries, the disintegration of fears and worries. It’s also so obviously in love with nature and the patterns of ocean life that it makes you want to dig up Jacques Cousteau’s corpse and take it to the Bahamas.

It is, ultimately, endlessly evocative of so many different things. It recalls the first warm day of the year, the smell of dew making way for the sun, the weird chalky feeling in your hair after swimming in the ocean, an afternoon spent reading your favourite tattered paperback at the beach, occasionally looking out at skies and seas so blue, deep lingering magnetic mercurial blues, so magnificent and awe-inspiring that the longer you look, the less certain you are where one ends and the other begins, not that it matters anyway.

(It’s twenty past seven now. I’m on the train. I hope I’ve done this album justice.)

Sleigh Bells, “Treats” (2010)

Dear Santa,

This Christmas I want thick (thicc) juicy and girthy beats that drop from the sky like a hailstorm of frogs onto unsuspecting eardrums. Beats shrouded in an impenetrable layer of fuzz scuzz and noise, beats that are hard, not especially funky, that’ll get you hooked like a crackhead junky. Beats like the sound of tinfoil and flesh hitting concrete. I want beats that’ll sate my desire for pop rhythm and structure, and also my desire for abrasion. Ear candy that’ll give you tinnitus. My Bloody Valentine with a pulse; Candy Claws for people who want to dance. An exercise in immediacy.

Can you help?

Dec

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Dear Dec,

You’ve been an underachieving little shit this year (good work on the blog though, Lester Bangs), and I hear you’re doing a Masters in film so good fucking luck getting a job with that. I figure you could do with some light relief, and I’ve got just the thing. The weirdly precise specifications in your request lead me to think you already know what album you want for Christmas; could you instead be writing a ham-fisted concept review?

But just as a bored Film student must write pieces of hifalutin nonsense nobody will read, so Santa must deliver the goods. I think the album “Treats”, by the noise pop band Sleigh Bells, will fit the bill nicely.

I lack your flair for the dramatic and also willingness to (un)ironically use the word “thicc”, but even an out-of-touch Luddite such as myself can’t deny the sheer force and pull of the beats on this album. But stop being such a basic listener! Accompanying these beats is a wonderful, almost childlike reliance on melody and lyrics that wouldn’t be out of place on a Sarah Records compilation. There’s more than surface pleasure to be had here.

I also think you should take note of the conciseness of the album. Italo Calvino said that conciseness was something he admired most in a work of art, and the fact that this albums makes such a headstrong and wilful impression that lingers for weeks after the first listen whilst also being just over half an hour is commendable. It leaves you wanting more and provides plenty of reasons to revisit it.

These songs are all of the same mode, which makes it hard to recommend one in particular, and the album is definitely best digested as a solid slab of noise; however, the song “Crown on the Ground” has such a brute force impact that I think boxers should inject it into their veins before a match, and Olympic runners should snort it before a race. It’s got enough moxy to become everyone’s personal anthem.

Vocalist Alexis Krauss and instrumentalist Derek Miller are obviously onto a good thing, and I hope you find it as much of a pleasure coming down your chimney as I did when my Elf showed me it on Soundcloud.

Stay Naughty

Mr Claus x

Ezra Furman, “Perpetual Motion People”, (2015)

(Using they/them pronouns for this one, because Furman has come out as gender fluid and this album has a lot of material about that and that’s one of the reasons I love it and TBH it would be disingenuous of me to not do that).

Thank God for this album. As Father John Misty lumbers forward on his odious one-man crusade to kill (breezeblock, sack, canal) Radio 6-friendly, literate pop music, discovering this disc felt like a reassuring hand on my shoulder from the folk above. It’s a palpitation of an album, running to and fro, about gender identity, mental health problems, existential angst, in a way that’s both optimistic and realistic. The central message seem to be; if you embrace yourself for who you are, in an authentic way, then that’s half the battle fought and won.

The music is an absolute grab-bag, reflecting Furman’s restlessness in their identity and their musical proclivities. The first four tracks are something of a suite, exploring doo-wop and jitter-pop variations with a breathless verve. The aptly titled opener “Restless Year” throws out reworked variations on a central refrain, a Joy Division-esque riff, and Furman’s fraught growl of a voice throwing out eye-catching, ear-grabbing statements left and right; “Death! Is my former employer/Death! Is my own Tom Sawyer”.

This continue onto the doo-wop infused second track “Lousy Connection”, in which Furman bemoans their inability to connect with those around him, and skewers their own construction of self; “I wanna see myself from the outside”. The ‘connection’ could also refer to Furman’s lack of mooring; “there’s nothing happening and it’s happening too fast” (there’s a million and one first tattoos there, calling it now).

“Hark! To The Music” presents, in a minute and a half, the kind of sentiment that The Smiths would have taken two minutes and a half to work through, hug the blessed DJ, and then “Haunted Head” really delves deep into the subject matter, with Furman addressing head-on their depression, “going through the motions like a champ”.

And on, and on. We get a couple of old-school folk/country ballads thrown into the mix (“Hour of Deepest Need” and “Watch You Go By”). “Pot Holes” is a pleasingly old-school honky-tonk alike romp. There’s recurring musical moments and ideas, such as a blaring clarinet (such an underused instrument), and backing vocals dishing out doo-wopisms left right and centre. The whole album sticks to a theme but can hardly be called “concept”; it’s way too disorganised and cluttered for that. It is a perfect reflection of the kind of mental state Furman spends 42 minutes describing to us.

I love this album to bits. It’s so candid, and fresh, and innovative. It’s got a sense of humour, and it isn’t preachy. As the world turns and moves towards a more sexually diverse state, music (and art in general) like this is a necessity. It’s an entry point, an airlock of empathy, that can get the general listener tapping the toes and then going “huh what’re they on about?” Then, hopefully, they learn.

It takes the rock myths of lore about gender binaries (Furman is a huge fan of Bowie and Reed) and finally makes them explicit. It’s no longer framed as a liminality, one foot in the traditionally straight world of rock and one foot in the queer camp. This is the real-deal, and I support Furman as much as I can.

Gogol Bordello, “Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike” (2005)

Pomp and circumstance, ruckus and rumpus, furore and farrago. Usually a one-trick pony is, y’know, only good for that one trick, but in the case of these guys they straddle that weirdly fine line between aforementioned pony and just being pros at their specialist subject. Nobody complains that the Beatles (mostly) just wrote pop songs, right?

This is an album that moves with the restlessness of a speed freak running to make the dole queue (it also evokes brazenly outdated 90’s metaphorical linchpins such as speed freaks, and dole queues). Opener “Sally” lines the stomach nicely, telling a loose story of a young girl falling in with a group of gypsies, before ruminating on the nature of global action. A lot of the album does that; it’s very interested in pouches of global movements and the way culture spreads outwards like something airborne, bolstering those it comes into contact with.

For example, between the title track and mid-album banger “Start Wearing Purple”, I am, due to a recently completed politics degree (not as) qualified (as I would like to think) to tell you that it’s basically a lesson in poststructuralist and cultural theory that wouldn’t be out of place in a discussion in one of my seminars (that I rarely attended).

It’s, basically, an intelligent album, about cultural self-determination and constructs of identity, heritage, and minority status in a globalised world that also sounds like it was recorded inside a bin behind a kebab house (I challenge anyone who doesn’t take that as an endorsement). This absolutely ramshackle feel to it is evident in the overriding musical structure/style, which is a raucous blend of old school balalaika-esque Eastern European folk, bolstered by lashings of old-school punk, the odd hard-rock riff, a dash of spoken word, lyrics sung in Russian. It combines too many elements to have not been the product of a concerted effort; likewise, it’s so dense that sometimes it feels like it’s overstuffed (but criticising this album for being too busy would be like criticising a doughnut for having too much sugar).

It’s also not that intelligent; the song “Not A Crime” , with the refrain “In the old time, in the old time/in the old time it was not a crime”, is gleefully indefensible, ideologically speaking, though there’s room for a subversive interpretation; equally it could just be them fucking with us. But this is all part of the album’s messy, sprawling charm. It’s over an hour long and, even after a year of returning to it periodically, some songs tend to blur into one another. It has very little flow or structure as an album, but as a collection of songs it works just fine. There’s just enough diversity to sustain it, though I’m thankful for Eugene Hutz’s snarling, proudly accented vocals at the core of the songs. He is a dazzling frontman and his presence brings just enough chutzpah to tie the whole thing together.

If you like your music to sizzle like a saucepan full of bangers, you could do worse in this cold cold month. Come and warm your hands by their politically conscious, world-music tinged fire.