Thursday, 26 May 2011

9. N-Dubz - Love.Live.Life

My girlfriend said she was off to bed. 'I'll be up in ten minutes,' I replied. 'I'm just going to finish this chapter'. Two minutes later I reached a passage which required concentration, so rather than re-reading and giving it the thought required, I put the book down and turned the TV on. And there they were: Dappy, Tulisa and Fazer. AKA N-Dubz. And they were in America. Now, they were over there to meet their American label and do some promo, but Dappy wasn't having that. All he wanted was to get to the studio and work on his songs. Hunt down and nail those three and a half minutes of 'radio gold'. (Full disclosure - I don't think he said 'radio gold', I think he said something street and finished it off with a funny hand gesture and a 'BOOM!'). Anyway, I couldn't help but be impressed - there was Tulisa, glamming it up at parties, drinking and dancing, there was Fazer, goofing around, hiring cars and cruising around LA, and all the time Dappy was in the studio, refusing to come out until he'd created something, ahem, worthy of the name N-Dubz. Dappy, a man committed to his art.

Of course the music is... Well I'm not supposed to like it, and N-Dubz would probably be distraught if I DID like it. But remember this: whatever you think of N-Dubz, Dappy puts in the hours. And they are better than Fleet Foxes.

Monday, 23 May 2011

8. The Triffids - Born Sandy Devotional

The first Triffids song I heard was Stolen Property and I couldn't play another song for about three days. Nothing else could compete with the ambition, conviction and passion, and just in case I'm making them sound like that big Irish band, eloquence. It floored me, and I'd never heard of them. And if you've devoured the music press for ten years, and still keep your hand in a little, even bands you've never actually heard, you've normally heard of. So, who the fuck were The Triffids? And how had I missed them?

They were Australian. They formed in Perth in 1978. The singer David McComb wrote the songs and they were pretty bloody ace, it turns out. Born Sandy Devotional was their second official album (although they had recorded many songs straight to cassette before releasing with labels). BSD was released in 1986 and produced by Gill Norton who went on to produce The Pixies and Throwing Muses amongst countless others. Although much of the album evokes the huge space and vast landscapes of their homeland, the songs were recorded in London and mixed in Liverpool. Perhaps the location only added fuel to their vision; sometimes the further away you are from something, the clearer you see it. Of course that could be total bollocks and they already had the songs and vision and just happened to press record in England.

At the time of the release McComb said, 'When we finished Born Sandy Devotional I knew it was the best thing we'd ever done, there was no question about it', and for many Triffids devotees it is considered their recorded high point. But whilst the album contains one of their most famous songs, Wide Open Road, nothing on the album quite comes close to Stolen Property. A friend of mine was introduced to Springsteen by listening to the Live/1975-85 album, and when he went back to the original albums he found them a little flat; they couldn't compete with the exuberant, emotional versions he'd grown used to. And whilst BSD isn't flat as such, it feels like they whole album builds to the sucker punch that is Stolen Property. Perhaps if the first Triffids song I'd heard wasn't so spectacularly brilliant I would have come to the album with lower expectations, and would see it as the complete masterpiece many fans regard it as. And, in retrospect, to expect nine other songs as emotionally intense as Stolen Property is perhaps unrealistic, and would have made the album an exhausting listen.

And there is still plenty to recommend here. The album's closer Tender Is The Night, where keyboardist player Jill Birt takes the lead vocals, is the perfect last track. A resigned song which acknowledges the darkness that has preceded it but finishes with a nod to hope:

'Let's go out tonight
It's getting dark earlier now
But where you are it's just getting light
Where you are it will just be getting light'

You get the feeling that all the songs here were written because they had to be written, that McComb needed to get them out there, and his lyrics are detailed and compelling throughout. These are songs with stories wrapped up in them, songs that bear repeated listenings. And McComb isn't from the Noel Gallagher school of lyric writing; there are some beautifully observed lyrics througout the album. From Tender Is The Night again:

'He never asks after her anymore
He made a point of losing her address
And every trinket that she ever touched
he keeps locked away and just burns up in the furnace of hIs chest'

Recorded in 1985 the album has dated incredibly well. There are moments when the drums and keyboards sound a little, well 1985 I suppose, but songs like Tarrilup Bridge and Lonely Stretch sound like they could have been recorded last week. Sadly, the band took a break in 1989 and never regrouped. Tragically McComb passed away in February 1999, just before his 37th birthday. I would urge anyone to hunt out their back catalogue and give them a listen.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

7. Bruce Springsteen - Darkness On The Edge Of Town

The first single I bought was Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA. My dad took me and my sister to Woolworths and we were allowed a single each. She wanted Like A Virgin, but that was considered too risky and she was persuaded to choose Take On Me instead. Both ace singles so it didn't matter. It was Bruce for me and it was because of those drums. Drums that sounded like some fucker was kicking the door in. Back then, like Ronald Reagan, I assumed Born to be a patriotic song about Bruce's birthplace, but at least I had the excuse of being 7 years old. In my teens Springsteen was massively uncool and I often neglected to mention my Bruce love (even Prefab Sprout had the gall to point out his naffness in Cars and Girls), and as I grew my hair and devoured the latest NME and Melody Maker indie darlings, I fell out of love with his big songs, saxophones solos and earnestness. The fact that various members of his band would often wear a bandana didn't help matters. But then, as these things often go, it became ok to admit you liked Bruce and he became (almost) cool again. I remember feeling surprised when an indie mate proudly announced he had tickets for the Boss at a huge outdoor gig. Surprised and jealous.

Born and Nebraska were the Bruce albums I loved. Big and brash and hushed and stripped back in turn, and somehow I always neglected Darkness, but after seeing the recent Thom Zimny documentary about the making of the album I had to dig it out. As the film makes clear Springsteen worked on this album. He recorded song after song (many of them recently released on the double album The Promise) and rejected songs considered to be sure-fire hits because they didn't fit his vision for the album.

Darkness deals with what would become a classic Bruce theme: the frustration of the everyman stuck in a provincial, declining town, trying to do his best, trying to get by. And whilst there are big songs on here the tone throughout is a sombre one, a million miles away from the pomp and triumph of Born To Run where he sang, 'Together we could break this trap, We'll run till we drop, baby we'll never go back'. In Darkness there is nowhere left to run, his characters are trapped by circumstance, stuck in a rut and learning to live there. If all that sounds a little dour, well, it is, but it's done deliberately, done with care and compassion. And Bruce, being Bruce, there are still the big tunes. Badlands kicks off the album with pounding drums and a chorus thousands of people can shout back at the band, but the heart of this album is found in songs such as Something In The Night, Factory and the title track, where there is no redemption, nowhere left to run. Darkness is not combatative Bruce; it's resigned and weary Bruce, but a more interesting record because of that.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

6. Take That - Progress

They didn't need him. They were doing so well. They were adored. They were selling records, he'd stopped selling records and they were winning. EVERYBODY loved them. Even people who liked music didn't mind them. And everyone had a clear role - Gary wrote the good songs, Mark wrote the ones that sounded like they were welded together buy a GCSE design and technology student, Howard was allowed to (sort of) sing a bit more, and Jason could concentrate on being coy about whether he and Lulu did it (even though no bastard in the world cared a shit and obviously they didn't). They'd won Brits, they were huge, and everything in the world was good. And then they let HIM back. With his face. And the way it goes down at the corners. Even when he smiles. WHY GARY, WHY THE FUCK WHY? Everyone had forgotten about Open Road, you were winning you lump! It didn't make any sense.

But ladies and gentlemen that is why Take That are better than me and you. Better than all of us. Gary, Mark, Howard and Jason are Good Blokes. And they remembered a time when there were five of them. Five young Turks who conquered the world together. Five lads from the north west who danced in every high school assembly in the country, dragged themselves to every gay bar from Loch Lomond to Lands End and jiggled until they were sore. They remembered the good times and they remembered the fallen soldier. The cheeky, charismatic, mother fucker who smoked and drank and sexed it with girls, and even liked music with guitars in it. The fucking tearaway. Although it's hard to remember it now, there was a time when the naughty one had the world in the palm of his hand. All he had to do was stand at the edge of a stage, spread his arms wide, turn his weird mouth down at the corners and nod and they would ROAR back at him with unconditional love. But then he made a really bad record (although The Sun were perhaps a bit OTT calling Rudebox 'The worst song ever'. And even if they were correct back then, it has surely been superseded since), and nobody was that interested anymore. Suddenly the good lads were winning and the self-important one was, if not exactly on his arse, in need of a helping hand. Isn't the pop world wonderful sometimes. And Take That being the fucking gentlemen they are, they held out their hand to the fallen one and let him back in.

So, the album. It's not as good as the ones they did without Robbie. He spoils it.

Friday, 13 May 2011

5. The Lovely Eggs - Cob Dominos

How to blast away those weepy, fey, emotionally incontinent Foxes for good? With Lancaster's ace guitar pop duo The Lovely Eggs of course! Cob Dominos is David and Holly's second album, a follow up to 2009's If You Were Fruit,and it's as bracing as a naked skydive into the sea at Morecambe. I imagine. Eighteen songs, half of them less two minutes long, and no acoustic guitars is what you get. And it's more than enough.

'What happens to you when you die? Does it hurt when you get old?'* they ask on Fuck It, before pondering the more important question: 'Can I type a letter when I'm thirsty?'

Muhammad Ali and All His Friends lasts twelve seconds and goes like this:

'Dog dirt alley, Chemical Ali, Kev and Ali, Bowling Alley, Kirstie Alley, Muhammad Ali.'

And just when you think they can't possibly improve on that, they deliver the twenty-second I'm A Journalist:

'I'm a journalist at The Observer, I'm a journalist at The Guardian, I'm a journalist at The Times, I'm a journalist, UP YER ARSE!, I'm a journalist, I'm a journalist, I'm a journalist, No!'

It probably shouldn't work, but it works beautifully.

They've also produced a possible hit (do bands still have hits?) with the great scruffy pop of Don't Look At Me (I Don't Like It). Sorry to quote more lyrics, but they are just so bloody, erm, lovely.

'Look at her with her rabbit spare teeth, look at him with his dressing gown nose,
Look at her with her cul-de-sac arms, look at him with his wheelchair heart.'

And that's the thing about The Lovely Eggs - even at their downright silliest, there is something, innately, brilliantly profound about them (although you wouldn't dare tell them that because they would take the piss and then write a song about you and you'd look like a bell end).

You get the feeling The Lovely Eggs are doing exactly what they want to, how they want to. And isn't that how bands should behave? Oh, and if you get chance, see them live, they rock hard.

* So does it hurt when you get old? Or do you just get tired and go a bit crumbly? I hope it doesn't hurt.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

4. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

Warning. This review contains strong language and a mention of Jeremy Clarkson. Sadly, both are necessary.

Leg it! The hipsters are coming! With their beards, their checked shirts and a new album they recorded in a forest in Nevada, after the principal songwriter broke up with the love of his life, because, you know, 'sometimes shit happens.' Probably. It's so very easy to dislike the Fleet Foxes with their acoustic guitars, walls of harmonies, wooly hats, universal acclaim and damn preciousness. So let's calmly put all that terrible prejudice and preconception to one side, lower the needle to the vinyl and give it a chance.

OK, so the first five seconds sound like the first five seconds of that Snow Patrol song, but we'll let it go, at least there are no massive, overbearing harmonies yet. In fact there are no harmonies for a full thirty seconds. But bloody hell when they start, do they keep coming. Of course complaining about harmonies on a Fleet Foxes record is as pointless as complaining that Jeremy Clarkson is a cunt. Fleet Foxes = harmonies. Jememy Clarkson = you get the idea. But there's just so many and the whole thing sounds so lush that by two minutes into the second song you are desperate for Metal Machine era Lou Reed to burst through the barn door, shoot the hairy fuckers with his feedback, whilst screaming at them to get proper jobs.

Speaking of jobs, Robin Pecknold, chief Fox, sings, 'If I had an orchard, I'd work til I'm raw. If I had an orchard I'd work til I'm sore.' I for one would love to see old Robin put to work on a twelve hour shift in an orchard. At least it might blister his fingers so he can't fret his twee chords for a few hours, exhaust him so there's no energy left to marshall his harmony rousing rabble. And what else would you expect twee, fiddly-folky, Fleet Foxes to sing about? Apples by any chance? They've already longed for an orchard, so it would make thematic sense. Well, they don't fucking disappoint! 'Green apples hang from my tree, they belong only to me, Green apples hang from my green apple tree, they belong only to, only to me.'

Yes, I know, fuck me. Apples.

And, yes, they have recorded the sound of Tibetan singing bowls. Tibetan. Singing. Bowls. Oh, my god, maybe it's a spoof! Maybe they are sat in their log huts, fake beards hung up, some heavy RnB grinding out, laughing at the fact that people are buying this utter arse. It's a thought to cling to.

The Independent thinks this album is 'an overwhelmingly gorgeous experience.' The Guardian says it's 'laughably beautifully.' Even the bubble-bursting people at Pitchfork think it's worth 8.8 out of 10. OneYearOneHundredAlbums thinks it sucks fake folk balls.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

3. Vinny Peculiar - Other People Like Me

Anyone can write a song. Learn three chords in a couple of weeks, buy a rhyming dictionary and knock something out. For your next song, add a new chord, maybe a minor one, they are good. Read a book, watch a film and borrow an idea for the lyrics. This is how many songs are written - they are almost constructed. It doesn't mean that they are bad songs, it just means they didn't demand to be written, they were conjured into being. But there are people who write songs because they have to, because there is an itch demanding to be scratched, an energy which has to be dissipated somehow. I suspect Vinny Peculiar is such a songwriter. Other People Like Me is his 9th (I think) album, and whilst I'm pretty sure he will carry on writing and recording songs, regardless of how well this album does, it's an album that deserves an audience.

There is a deliberate 70's feel to the music throughout Other People Like Me, there are big glammy guitars stomping all over the place and Alice Cooper and Bowie are namechecked before the end of the second song. Add to this the fact that the album was recorded in an analogue studio and you could be forgiven in thinking that this record is an exercise in nostalgia. But even though Peculiar is looking back lyrically and musically, there is a remarkable vitality to the record, an energy and imagination to spare. And there are of course the lines that only Vinny Peculiar could write:

'The tangerine underwear of nubile young mothers, flashing above the bridge of thighs.
Where we hid and gawped and giggled with joy. You naughty boy.'

This could go down very badly with Mr. Peculiar himself, but, lyrically at least, certain songs here bring to mind some of Springsteen's finest (although Springsteen himself rarely, to my knowledge, addresses the coloured underwear of young mothers). They are songs concerned with the past, with people and places from a life lived a long time ago, stripped of highways and americana, and set instead on the bench opposite the Forest Pub, the war memorial next to the dairy on Meadow Lane. What Peculiar understands is that these seemingly nothing places are the centre of the universe, at least for a time, to the people who grow up there. And if there is any justice Vinny Peculiar's new album will receive at least some of the attention usually lavished on Springsteen.

Other People Like Me is a personal and ambitious album, without doubt one of Peculiar' best. And a special mention must go to what is essentially the closing song, Something And Nothing, a beautiful song with the simple refrain: 'It was something of nothing. But it meant everything to me.' Because that's the truth isn't it? It's always the small things in the end. And if you still need any persuasion, remember, this is the man who wrote Jesus Stole My Girlfriend.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

2. The Tallest Man On Earth - The Wild Hunt

The Tallest Man On Earth, aka Kristian Matsson, is a Swedish bloke with a guitar. The Wild Hunt is his second album. I won't mention who he shares a striking vocal resemblance with, because it's mentioned in every article written about him (it's even on his Wikipedia page), and it must really piss him off. So, in the spectacularly unlikely event that he'll ever read this, I'll probably piss him off in a different way. Gradually, over the course of the album his voice becomes wearing. All starts well with the title track, an enjoyable song that breezes along. I first reached for the volume on You’re Going Back where he sings like he wants to ram his words into your ear with his fist. 'DID YOU HEAR THAT?' he roars, 'Did. You. Hear. Every. Single. Word? OR SHALL I DO IT AGAIN LOUDER SIR?' And whilst 'The Man We Won't Mention' (Bob Dylan) often let rip back in his early years, back when he was more likely to bother to annunciate clearly and deliver a crisp tirade, you got the feeling he didn't actually give a shit whether you could hear clearly or not. Whereas Matsson delivers his lines like he will surely die if his message is not heard and understood. Too often it sounds like he's riding across the Mojave desert on the back of a Harley Davidson, and the person he is singing to is back in New York. Drilling. In a quiet moment, when the city lulls itself into a rare calm, and his intended audience turns his drill off, he might even be able to hear the fucker. Even the low-key songs only give you a verse or two before the vocal is jumping straight back out and smashing down doors. Maybe it would work better if there was more dressing around the voice, but there is only ever a lone acoustic guitar or piano to try and shelter his keening (ok there is a bit of banjo accompaniment on the title track, but that isn't going to smooth the edges off anything). Headphone listening becomes tiring. Exhausting even.

I didn't start this blog to smash anyone, so let's finish with this. He can write songs. He can play guitar beautifully. This album has been reviewed and loved in loads of places. A friend saw him live, said he was wonderful, joyful. He's selling out venues all over the place. And my girlfriend, who has spectacularly good taste, enjoyed this album. It's ok, we're fine about it.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

1. Wild Beasts - Smother

The Guardian are streaming Smother, by Wild Beasts this week, so that seems the ideal place to start this enterprise. Previously I've listened to Wild Beasts on Spotify, liked what I've heard, watched a live performance on youtube, and then never thought about them again. A silly mistake. If any band deserves time and commitment it's this lot. On paper Wild Beasts are a four piece beat combo from the north of England. But don't let that put you off. Wild Beasts are about as far away from Oasis, Cast, and, god help us, Brother (Slough, I know, but I couldn't help it), as it's possible to be. Wild Beasts understand that pop music can be slinky, shadowy, and mysterious. That it can speak to the head and the heart. The album opens with the throb of a synth and the magnificent couplet: 'I find you hidden there, a veiled creature of the deep, Waifish as a widow and without sufficient sleep.' You immediately understand that nobody will be slowly walking down the hall faster than a cannonball on this album.

All the usual instruments are played, it's just that Wild Beasts don't always play them in the usual way. Guitar lines snake in and out, pianos sound like harpsichords, drums gradually rise and fall - in fact, so subtle is the drumming, you could play a drinking game on every drum roll on this album and still be sober at the end - and, oh my god, is that a panpipe on Loop the Loop? Probably not, but it sounds like one, and even if it is, it works perfectly. Wild Beasts, like The Blue Nile before them, are concerned with texture as much as anything else, and like The Blue Nile, they share, a lonely, late at night, heartbroken but still hopeful sound. And if talk of texture and no drum rolls sounds as boring as fuck, the songs themselves are fantastic. And sometimes they are dark and dirty, and damn it, even sexy.

To make an unfashionable point; the singing on this album is beautiful. Many bands struggle to find one decent voice in their ranks, and whilst I will always prefer a wobbly Barney Sumner impassioned attempt to the note perfect warbling of a Mariah or Leona, Wild Beasts just happen to have two wonderful singers in Thorpe and Fleming. Their voices duet perfectly on Reach A Bit Further, never overwrought, always delivering the song, never merely looking for attention.

Smother is a subtle, intricate album. It works best listened to as a whole, it's perfectly sequenced, and it's a shame that people will go hunting for the big singles, which aren't really here, and maybe miss out on the true quality of this record. This is exactly the type of album I was hoping to eventually discover with this project, it takes you deep into the world created by the band, every instrument and song perfectly placed, and I was lucky to find it for the first review.

(Oh, and the cover looks like a Tanita Tikaram album from the late eighties. Which is a good thing, obviously.)