Monday, September 30, 2013

What's So Great About Praxis Makes Perfect?

For several weeks now, I've been listening to Welsh Music Prize-nominated albums and saying that they're not as good as Praxis Makes Perfect by Neon Neon. What I've yet to do is explain why I actually like Praxis... so much.

That's what I'm going to do today, and I'm hopefully going to focus on the music instead of on the mind-blowing National Theatre Wales performance that took place back in May. When I judge rather good albums like February and Summer Special to be inferior to Praxis Makes Perfect, I do worry that the live show is colouring my opinion of the album, giving it an edge that simply can't be beaten. However, I've had a good, long think about this, and I've decided that Neon Neon's second album would still be a source of awesomeness even without the help of NTW.

Image taken from National Theatre Wales

Here are a few of my favourite things about the album:

It's a concept album
As I've mentioned previously, I love a good concept album. Even if the tunes were rubbish, I'd still give Praxis Makes Perfect a bit of credit for daring to tell us a story about the life and times of Italian publisher and activist Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. As is my wont, I've searched for arcs and unifying concepts in all the other WMP albums I've heard so far, but PMP seems to be the only clear-cut one.

It sets a good scene
The title track is an edgy instrumental that's splattered with urgent-sounding beeps and snippets of information about Feltrinelli himself. I wouldn't say it eases you in - the music actually sounds rather uneasy - but it's a great introduction nonetheless.

It brings the tunes thick and fast
Didn't enjoy that opening track? Felt that it was a bit unnecessary? Not to worry, because your listening efforts will be instantly rewarded by track two, The Jaguar:

I *love* this track. It might well be my favourite song of 2013. Those synths, the steady, unflinching beat, and that soaring, electrifying chorus - it's all fabulous. And the good news is that it isn't the only top-notch track on the album: in the next fifteen minutes, we get Dr. Zhivago (another one with a great big chorus), Hammer & Sickle (as throbbing and as infectious as any, uh, wound), Shopping (hypnotic in its silliness), Mid Century Modern Nightmare (short but effective), and The Leopard (that rare slow, reflective track that isn't boring). Gems, one and all.

Even its lowlights are pretty good
There are two tracks on this CD that don't excite me as much as the others: Hoops with Fidel and Listen to the Rainbow. And yet, even these songs are decent - LttR is bouncy and ends with a nice sax-fuelled freakout, while Hoops with Fidel - as pointed out in one review that I read - is as close as the album comes to a Super Furry Animals song:

It ends well, and doesn't outstay its welcome
I like short albums almost as much as I like concept albums, and Praxis Makes Perfect pulls off that trickiest of tricks: feeling like an epic without going on for too long. Ciao Feltrinelli is a great, achey-sounding closer, the most final of all finales, and while you feel like you've come to the end of a long, long journey, you're not afraid to start it all over again. At just over thirty minutes long, it's a very digestible LP indeed.

So that's why I love Praxis Makes Perfect. Four Welsh albums have so far failed to displace it as my favourite - there are seven more to come in October. How will they do?

Friday, September 27, 2013

Everything's Getting Older

A track-by-track look at the 2012 Scottish Album of the Year and what it means to me.

Tasogare/Let's Stop Here
When I first listened to Everything's Getting Older, I was lying in bed in a cottage in Scotland (appropriately enough). Sarah and I were on holiday with my family; we were staying just outside of a small town named Dollar, and we visited several Scottish landmarks during our stay, including the Wallace Monument and the Falkirk Wheel. I put this album on for the very first time one morning when Sarah had popped off for a shower, and the lusciously lovely piano lines that kick off the record will now forever remind me of curling up in that big white duvet in a Scottish holiday cottage.

I didn't even notice the join between these two tracks at first - the opening notes of Let's Stop Here sound like an extension of Tasogare - so that's why I've lumped them together here. I listened very intently to the lyrics of Let's Stop Here, a story about Aidan Moffat meeting up with an old crush and nearly getting it on with them but calling it off because he's grown up and moved on and fallen in lurve with someone else. I'm not used to hearing the protagonists in Moffat's songs do the right thing, so those last three words put a big smile on my face.

As a twenty-two year old man, I ought really to identify with the bit about getting drunk and eating pizza more than I identify with the bit about having children and going to the supermarket. Sadly, this song doesn't make me want to go out and get wrecked; it makes me wish it were Saturday, so that I could go to Asda and do a big shop. Sigh.

A Short Song to the Moon
I wasn't bothered by this one, until I saw it live. The Miniature Music Press dispatched me to review Wells and Moffat's show in Cardiff last year, and their rendition of this song was an unexpected highlight. It was bouncy, it was upbeat, and it ended with a super-hot extended trumpet solo. Spectacular.

Ballad of the Bastard
I was staying at Sarah's house one night - her stepbrother had gone off to university, so I ended up kipping in his recently-vacated bedroom - and unable to sleep, I found myself reaching for the iPod. I listened to Last of the Country Gentlemen, and when that didn't send me to sleep, I stuck Everything's Getting Older on. In contrast to Josh Pearson's frail, winding wailsongs, this album sounded very to-the-point indeed, and Ballad of the Bastard - the album's weak point, for my money - sounded particularly clunky that night. It's grown on me since, but it's still my least favourite.

The Copper Top
During one of my many visits to Spillers Records in central Cardiff, I spotted a new release from Arab Strap frontman Aidan Moffat. It was a collaboration with someone named Bill Wells, but more excitingly, the CD came with a free business card for a fake funeral director's business. I was eager to make the purchase, but my friend Cliffey, who was with me at the time, convinced me that I shouldn't buy an album that could, for all I know, be complete rubbish just because it comes with a free piece of card.

And so I kept my cash in my pocket and headed back to the student house in which we both lived. Shortly afterwards, I found myself sitting in my squalid little room, watching the video for The Copper Top on YouTube and wishing I'd taken the risk.

I eventually received the CD as a birthday present, in case you're wondering.

Glasgow Jubilee
This was the song I showed Sarah on Spotify to prove what a great album Everything's Getting Older is. It's a fair bit more rocked-up than the other tracks, and I decided that it would be the most immediately ear-catching. She loved it, incidentally, and she quickly learned the words so that she could growl along in a fake Glaswegian accent.

(If You) Keep Me In Your Heart
I didn't drink until a couple of years ago, but now that I have a job and responsibilities and stuff, I feel obliged to make the most of every non-school night by at least trying to get drunk. These recent attempts to become an alcoholic have coincided with a sharp upturn in how frequently that 'last drink before bed' line pops into my head. It's got a strangely romantic, intimate ring to it, all the weirder for being cooed by a gruff Scotsman.

Dinner Time
My parents still live in the house I recently moved out of, but that's still the house I picture myself returning to when I listen to this song. They'll move out one day, and I can't even begin to imagine how the house will end up looking when somebody else owns it. I probably won't go as far as breaking back in to take a peek, mind.

The Sadness In Your Life Will Slowly Fade
This one's been a fixture of my iPod playlist recently, and so I now associate it pretty closely with catching the train home from work. The stuff about struggling through the day cuts very deep by quarter to six in the evening.

The Greatest Story Ever Told
One Friday night, not that long ago, I went to my friend Mark's house for drinks and chat. Having enjoyed plenty of both, I trudged back home at something like four in the morning, enjoying how completely deserted Cathays was at that hour. I had my iPod to keep me company, and I decided that Everything's Getting Older would be the perfect small hours companion for my walk home - Aidan Moffat, with his friendly Scottish accent and conversational tone, makes for great company when there's nobody else around.

This song was especially heartwarming on that particular evening, and when Mr Moffat tells you to 'look after your teeth', he says it with such gravitas - like it's the last piece of advice your father offers you before succumbing to some terminal disease - that you'll never forget to brush again after hearing it.

And So We Must Rest
And here's why this album is the perfect 'just before you go to sleep' listen. Aidan Moffat croons you nodwards with minimal backing, and no matter what time is was when you started listening, it's time for bed by the time he's done.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

WMP Nominees - Sweet Baboo

I've been reviewing all the albums that are nominated for this year's Welsh Music Prize. If you're starting're starting in the wrong place.

If there's one thing I like about Ships, it's the title. I like how the name reflects both the album's nautical feel and its lyrical themes (relationships, geddit?) I've no idea if this double meaning was intentional, but hey, it's a nice touch.

If there's one thing I don't like about Ships, it's that bastard Morse code song. Partially because it's inaccurate - don't worry, I checked so you don't have to - but mainly because it makes me feel like my dad. "Oh, shut up," I find myself saying as Mr Baboo prepares to repeat that same line another four times. I like repetitive songs when that repetition is mined for emotional weight*, a compelling sound**, or just a hypnotic rhythm***, but The Morse Code for Love is Beep Beep, Beep Beep, The Binary Code is One One (seriously, even if the song were any good, I'd still hate it for its name) fails to strike gold on any of those three fronts. It's too ham-fisted to draw me in or make me feel anything besides irritated, and the rhythm could have been composed by Mario baddies. Thwomp! Clomp! Et cetera.

File:Thwomp 64.png
No, I will not be embedding that stupid song in my blog. Seek it out yourself if you're curious.

I was ready to tear this album apart on the weaknesses of that one dreadful track, but actually, everything else is much better. I love the Stylophone (?) solo on If I Died..., I love the brisk, trotting pace of You Are a Wave, and since I'm a horn player I'm pretty much required to love the fact that there's brass all over this album. I even love how some of these songs sound like The Beautiful Briny from Bedknobs and Brooksticks (or, if you'd prefer a more contemporary reference, that mermaid song from Flight of the Conchords). it better than Praxis Makes Perfect?
I'm afraid not. While The Morse Code... is this album's sole example of actual bad songwriting, several other songs suffer from a moist, cloying tweeness that rather dampens my enjoyment of the album. There's a great line in track one (hear it in the video below) about how Daniel Johnston has hundreds of great songs and Sweet Baboo only has six, so he's got quite a bit of catching up to do; I wanted the whole album to be packed with lyrics like that, but instead, I got some toe-curling guff about a 'mermaid cutie' that made my brain try to squirm out through my ears. That's only one example, in fairness, but I feel like there's plenty of scope for emotional heft here - the aforementioned opening track, for example, finds the narrator wondering if he'll be remembered after his death - and it's been squandered in favour of cutesy couplets about mermaids and coconuts and fishies and yay.

I still like the seafaring theme, although Ships was never going to live up to the high standards set by Modest Mouse's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank in the nautical album league. Nor could it usurp the throne that Neon Neon have been sitting on since I started meandering through the WMP shortlist; I think I'm doing the Laurence Made Me Cry album next Wednesday, so be sure to come back and see if that fares any better.

*See She Don't Love Me No More by The Aliens
**See Falling Down a Mountain by Tindersticks
***See Sound of Silver by LCD Soundsystem

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Lyre of Orpheus

I closed Friday's blog post with Supernaturally by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and at some point during the intervening weekend, it occurred to me how often I listen to its parent album, The Lyre of Orpheus, and how seldom I listen to the other half of that album, Abattoir Blues.

There are plenty of double albums in my collection, but Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus is the only one that I tend to take as two separate albums (possibly along with that Outkast album). I think if the two sets were simply labelled Disc 1 and Disc 2 - as 95% of other double albums are - I would be more inclined to listen to the whole thing as one sole work, but since Mr. Cave was kind enough to give each CD a proper name, I sometimes forget that they're two halves of the same album.

As for why I prefer TLoO to AB...well, my tough-eared teenage self would cringe if he could read this, but The Lyre of Orpheus is just an easier listen. Abattoir Blues is good fun, sure, but there are a lot of harsh sounds that make it somewhat harder to enjoy. Aside from the demonstrable Cave classics like Nature Boy and There She Goes, My Beautiful World, the half-album mostly manifests itself in the form of drawn-out jams with silly, slightly violent lyrics. Again, it's fun, but not as out-and-out excellent as its counterpart.

Of course, TLoO isn't short on gore - listen to the title track for a prime example - but on the whole, the focus is on love and relationships, which is much easier to swallow than AB's unhealthy obsession with more visceral stuff. Compare these two tracks; the first is from Abattoir Blues, the second is from The Lyre of Orpheus:

Hiding All Away is plenty enjoyable, but the stuff about the chef making the woman climb inside his oven puts me slightly ill-at-ease. For one reason or another, I'd much sooner listen to Nick Cave sing about putting his hand down someone's panties.

Oddly enough, I had assumed pre-purchase that I'd prefer Abattoir Blues. I had it in my head that the first disc was full of big, rocked-up numbers, while the second disc was softer and more acoustic. I wasn't entirely wrong, but as it turns out, sensitive Nick Cave can sometimes be even better than rocked-up Nick Cave. I was surprised, but just listen to Breathless and tell me you'd rather listen to something with a drumkit and a Marshall stack behind it:

Besides, The Lyre of Orpheus isn't devoid of rockers - Supernaturally demonstrated that quite ably on Friday.

Can you think of any other double-disc sets that really do feel like two separate records? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Thou Shalt Not Track-Skip

My girlfriend's father - he could write a blog or two about albums, I don't doubt - has often preached that track-skipping is a cardinal sin, and that when listening to an album, one ought to listen to it properly. Of course, he's a vinyl man, and track-skipping on a turntable is more trouble than it's worth, but I listen to most of my music on portable devices and I hold more or less the same view. Even when I'm not enjoying a song and I'm keen to proceed to the next one, I very seldom hit the skip button; if the artist deemed this song worthy of a place on their LP, who am I to pooh-pooh it?

Recently, though, I've realised that I might not be the saintly, skip-shunning listener I took myself for. After all, I was all too happy to lop two tracks off the Public Service Broadcasting album, reconfiguring the band's artistic vision for my own listening pleasure - is skipping a track in the middle really any different?

Well, yes, I'd contest that it is. When you hit the skip button right in the middle of a song, you're interrupting the flow of the album, raising your palm to the band as they rock out and going "nah, not keen on that one, what else have you got?" If you like an album, you'll listen to the whole thing, even the naff bits; if you find yourself skipping all over the place, you probably like the individual tracks more than you like the album. In fact, my main reason for beheading the PSB album was the presence of Spitfire, an earlier single that had already found a good home on their previous EP and felt like a bonus track on the full album. If you just want to hear your favourite songs, make a playlist and listen to that instead!

This is kind of related to my hatred of being interrupted while I listen to an album. Even if I pause the music and start listening again from the exact same spot, the effect is ruined. I'm no longer immersed in the world that the album has created, and now I'm starting again from some random spot in the middle of a song.

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of songs that I love even when taken out of the album context. Heck, I could name quite a few albums that are rubbish apart from one song, and I appreciate that there's no point wading through forty-five minutes of dross to reach a track that you could have just listened to on its own.

But if this amazing song's parent album is even halfway decent, I always find it far more rewarding to hear that song in context. Its place on the tracklist gives it an extra dimension, and like the heart-in-throat first chords of the song you came to the gig to hear, it will sound all the better for the journey.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

WMP Nominees - Euros Childs

There are twelve albums in the running for this year's Welsh Music Prize. When the shortlist was announced, I was only familiar with Neon Neon's Praxis Makes Perfect, but I've been atoning for my ignorance by working my way through the other eleven. Keep track of my progress here.

There's a lot of pressure on Summer Special here. Not just because Euros Childs is one of the bigger names on the shortlist, but also because this is the album that my mystery commenter, having rubbished Neon Neon's claim to Welshness, pledged his support for a couple of weeks ago. Personally, I was a little concerned that an album called Summer Special would lose some of its sunny appeal when heard in mid-September, when the afternoons are wet and the evenings are dark.

I needn't have worried. After all, this summer album was made by a Welshman, and Summer Special has, strangely enough, revealed itself to be a rather lovely rainy day record. This joke finds its punchline on Painting Pictures of Summer:

"I spend my days painting pictures of summer, sometimes it rains and sometimes there's thunder...mum says, 'Come out of the shed and stop complaining, life is beautiful even when it's raining'...looks like a piece of shit to me."

To these ears, Summer Special sounds like it was made for September. It's perfect for this back-to-school time of year; some of these songs seem like they should be sung in the school hall, elderly teaching assistant dutifully pressing away at piano keys in the corner. Whether it's the wind band coda of That's Better or the cute naivety of Skipping and Dancing, there's a rather sweet 'class assembly' feel going on here. Heck, Clap a Chan sounds like the sort of song a primary school teacher would use to teach kids Welsh.

(I should point out at this juncture that I am by no means a Welsh speaker. For all I know, Clap a Chan could be a tongue-in-cheek dissertation on the life and times of Jackie Chan, complete with throaty bilingual wordplay on the great man's surname. I've no idea.)

So Summer Special, in summary, is a bit of a treat. It's a simple pleasure, childish and charming, with only the faintest stink of rock 'n' roll anarchy about it.

But... it better than Praxis Makes Perfect?

I don't think so. Summer Special certainly isn't an LP without depth - gems like Headphone Mona and These Dreams of You (two of my favourites) have a delicious yearning about them, and That Good Old Fashioned Feeling makes "heartache and pain" sound nostalgic and pleasant. But a couple of tracks really let the side down, namely Roogie Boogie and Good Feeling. The former is simply irritating, while the latter has a terribly clunky refrain that does nothing for me at all. He should have just covered the Violent Femmes song, I reckon he'd nail that.

I'm not even that keen on Be Be High, which is both the opening track and one of the singles. It's catchy, sure, but while I don't want to come across as some unsmiling killjoy, I'd happily trade it for another slightly sad love song like These Dreams of You.

So Neon Neon are still my main men, at least for the time being. Next week, I'll be ruminating on Ships by Sweet Baboo - come back on Wednesday to find out what I make of it.

Monday, September 16, 2013


I initially expected Stephin Merritt's Showtunes to be a covers album, a smorgasbord of songs from classic musicals as re-interpreted by the Magnetic Fields mainman. This illusion was shattered as soon as I looked at the tracklist:

Either Merritt was drawing from some pretty obscure shows, or I'd gotten the wrong end of the stick. I had a quick leaf through the liner notes, and actually, the truth of the matter was far more interesting: Stephin Merritt had written a bunch of original songs for a trio of productions that a man named Chen Shi-Zheng had put together. There's The Orphan of Zhao, based on a Chinese play from hundreds of years ago; there's Peach Blossom Fan, based on a Chinese play from hundreds of years ago; and there's My Life as a Fairy Tale, based on the stories of Hans Christian Andersen.

Showtunes is a mish-mash of the songs that Stephin Merritt wrote for these three shows; the end result is a sort of three-pronged concept album, with everything blended together and out of order. The stories are explained in the inlay: The Orphan of Zhao is all about revenge, Peach Blossom Fan is all about war (sort of), and My Life as a Fairy Tale is all about, uh, fairy tales.

Still, even if you're not trying to piece these narrative jigsaws together, Showtunes is still a great listen. It sounds very oriental, and it's great to hear this new spin on Merritt's usual brilliance: strip away the traditional Chinese instrumentation, and many of these songs would have been right at home on 69 Love Songs. I can't find it on YouTube, but listen to 'Shall We Sing a Duet?' and you'll see exactly what I mean.

Showtunes also boasts one of the best villain songs ever, I reckon:

And then there are my favourites, the real sad ones: The Little Maiden of the Sea, And He Would Say..., and In The Spring, When I Was Young are exquisitely heart-wrenching. This album cost me three pounds; you can probably get it for a similar amount on the internet if you know where to look (hint: Amazon Used & New), and I'd heartily recommend that you do. I only wish I could go and see the shows.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Second Album Syndrome (and 5 Bands that Beat it)

Mind-blowing debuts are all well and good, but it's the second album that shows us what a band is really made of. Countless acts have released stellar first albums, only to let out a thin little fart of a follow-up before fading into obscurity.

This is known as 'second album syndrome'. Most people agree that the most common cause is a lack of time; artists have years to polish and hone their first set of songs, but once that record has topped the charts and the fans are grinding against their mattresses and moaning for more, the band is under pressure to get the creativity flowing again as quickly as possible.

Of course, the other explanation is expectation. The songs that made up your debut are now lodged in the heart of the nation, and everyone is expecting some serious fireworks from album number two. So you write the best stuff you've ever written, the hotly-anticipated album hits the shops, and...everyone is disappointed, because nothing you could have written would ever have fulfilled the hopes they had for it. The first LP had nothing to live up to, and if you make the mistake of releasing a good first album, the second one will have a pretty long shadow to stand in.

Fortunately, not everyone falls prey to SAS. Here are five bands who sidestepped second album syndrome and whether by craftsmanship, inventiveness, or just sheer audacity, proved that second albums could be even better than their predecessors:


First album: All Hour Cymbals, an engaging indie/world offering with intricate sounds and semi-chanted vocals.

Second album: Odd Blodd, a far more poppy affair which spawned such hits as Ambling Alp and O.N.E. (the latter of which was featured in FIFA '12). It was still weird, but far more immediate and quite a bit more enjoyable for it.

* * *


First album: Beautiful Freak, a grunge-tinged debut with plenty of great songs...even though a lot of people seem to remember it solely for their first hit, Novocaine for the Soul.

Second album: Electro-Shock Blues, a deeper, darker set of songs. Where Beautiful Freak was all about being unable to fit in, this album dealt with the death of his sister (by suicide) and his mother (by cancer). Not always a cheery listen, but very, very good nevertheless.

* * *


First album: Attack of the Grey Lantern, which proved that Britpop could be artistically ambitious and still reach the top of the charts. One of my favourite albums ever.

Second album: Six, and while I personally prefer Grey Lantern, there are many who disagree with me. Instead of trying to emulate the success of their debut, Paul Draper 'n' Palz just went bonkers with this album, throwing in all kinds of ideas both musical and thematic. While there are lots of proggy, challenging tracks (Shotgun and Cancer, to name two examples), there are a few classic singles on there as well - try Negative, Legacy, or Being a Girl for a slightly  easier way in.

* * *


First album: Under the Western Freeway, a classic in its own right - any album with Summer Here Kids on it is dandy in my diary - although it did have a few funny loose ends that didn't seem to have any reason for being, e.g. Poisoned at Hartsy Thai Food.

Second album: The Sophtware Slump, which improved on ...Freeway in almost every way. It was more cohesive, there were themes that ran throughout the album, and by and large, the songs were better, too. The Crystal Lake and He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot are fairly well-known (that guy from My Name is Earl even named his kid 'Pilot' after the latter song, presumably because he wanted his child to be simple and dumb), but even the less consequential tracks like 'Chartsengrafs' are gold.

* * *


First album: Pablo Honey, actually a pretty good album, but everything except Creep has since been overshadowed by their more recent work.

Second album: The Bends, perhaps the quintessential non-disappointing second album. It still bore a few remnants of Pablo Honey - see Black Star and Sulk - but everything else represented an astounding leap forward. Who could have imagined that the 'I'm a creep/I'm a weirdo/What the hell am I doing here?' guy would be singing the lyrics of Street Spirit only two years later?

Have a great weekend, everyone! If you think of any other second albums that were notably unterrible, leave 'em in the comments.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

WMP Nominees - Winter Villains

I'm in the process of listening to each Welsh Music Prize-nominated album in turn. If you missed my Fist of the First Man write-up last week, you'll want to read that first.

From the moment I hit 'Publish' on last Wednesday's Fist of the First Man review, I started to feel guilty. Not merely because I wasn't nice about the album, but because the qualms I had expressed were almost entirely founded on disappointed expectations, rather than any actual issues with the record itself. I had paid for those songs under the assumption that they would bear some relation to the spectacle I witnessed in Buffalo Bar on that cold December night, and when they kind of didn't, it ceased to matter what the album actually sounded like because it wasn't what I wanted. If Tallahassee taught me anything, it's that high expectations can ruin even the best albums.

It was worries such as these that drove me to choose February as my next WMP album. Winter Villains were the only nominees with whom I was completely unacquainted, and as such, I had no expectations for them to disappoint.

Or that was the plan. I quickly realised that, in spite of the unfamiliarity - in spite of never having heard a note of their music, or read a word that's been written about them - I had still made several assumptions about how this album would sound. Most of them were based solely on the album art; a band with the word 'winter' in their name sent someone out to the woods to take a photo that could be used as the cover for their upcoming record, which incidentally would be named after the second-crappest month of the year*.

Basically, I didn't expect to enjoy this album. That Bon Iver-inspired sensitive hipster forest folk thing is all well and good, but it's not really my cup of tea; I think those artists have a tendency to prioritise "atmosphere" over genuine emotion and, y'know, good tunes.

But once again, my expectations have been confounded, and this time for the better. February is actually a very engaging listen, and while it's certainly not short on atmosphere, it's all underpinned with decent tunes, so I'm okay with it. My favourites are The Air (for the squad of violinists sawing away at their strings in the background), Patterns (for its Mogwai-esque beginnings and the 'cover up' chorus), and Moon (for the fact that it reminds me of the music from Winter Bells).

And then there's Thorns, perhaps the album's centrepiece. It starts fairly inconspicuously, but after a minute or two the song gives way to a clicky electronic drum track and sparse, beautiful piano playing. Then the band come back to take the song to its rousing, Arcade Fiery conclusion. It's a real show-stopper.

There are some problems, but they're mostly down to my own personal preferences. The choral vocals, prevalent throughout, get on my nerves after a while, and it would be nice to hear a lone voice poking through it all on occasion. I'm also not that bothered by the lyrics; it's all icicles and trees and whatever, and very few of the songs seem to be actually about anything (although I'd love to be proven wrong - if any Winter Villains are reading this, feel free to leave some song meanings in the comments).

As for the atmosphere, though, I actually quite like it. True to its title (not to mention the band's name), the album sounds very wintry and outdoorsy, and it makes for a great listen on these early autumn mornings. it better than Praxis Makes Perfect?

No, although I do feel a bit bad about this one. I've only had February for a few days, whereas I've been to see a full-blown theatre performance based on Praxis - it's lodged quite firmly in my head and heart by this point, and if any of the other WMP nominees want to beat Neon Neon, they've got a serious mountain to climb. I enjoyed February far more than I expected - I'm actually quite excited to hear more from these guys - but I'm confident that even without the theatrics, tunes like The Jaguar and The Leopard would still appeal to my tastes slightly more than the likes of The Air. It's a no from me for now, but who knows? By the time February actually does arrive, I may have reversed this decision in favour of Winter Villains.

I'm going straight from winter to summer next week, so come back on Wednesday to find out what I make of Summer Special by Euros Childs.

*January is obviously the crappest month of all. The cream of the crap, if you will.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Different Classes, Pt. 2

On Friday, I offered my own take on of Pulp's platinum-selling fifth album, Different Class. While the references to social classes (working class, middle class, etc.) are plain to see in songs like Common People and I Spy, there are several other songs on the album that don't seem to have any relation to the class theme at all.

But I'm halfway through arguing that actually, every song on this album draws a line between people; it's us versus them every step of the way and whether it's nerds vs. bullies (as on Mis-Shapes), the sexually active vs. the not so sexually active (Live Bed Show), or just upper class vs. lower class, the record is rife with examples of people being put in categories. The characters that populate these songs (and the monochrome people on the front cover) are the misfits, the singletons, the burnouts, and the people who never really had a chance, and they're all looking to change their lives and experience something more. 

Before you read on, be sure to read part one first. Done? Then let's move on to Side 2...
  1. Something Changed
    There's a bit in Mis-Shapes where Jarvis Cocker starts talking about the lottery ("check your lucky numbers, that much money could drag you under"), and at first I didn't really get what that had to do with the. But looking at it again, I think it's just another criticism of the knuckleheads who terrorise him and his misfit mates; in spite of their power, the bullies are as working class as their prey, and instead of seeking an education and climbing the social ladder by brainpower (which is Jarvis's proposed tactic), they just spend all their money on lottery tickets in the hope that they'll get lucky.

    What does this have to do with Something Changed, you ask? Well, this song is all about getting lucky and winning your way out of a shitty situation; the only difference is that Jarvis is sick of being single, and tonight he wants to win the lottery of lurve. The very first line is "I wrote this song two hours before we met", so we know that the love song that follows is hopeful rather than thankful. He's trying to bend fate to his will, and if he concentrates hard enough, perhaps something will change. Not unlike Live Bed Show, this is one where being single and unloved is analogous to being of low social standing, and just as the antagonists of Mis-Shapes look to the lottery to change their lives, Jarvis is hoping that some force higher than himself will intervene and find true love for him:

    "Do you believe that there's someone up above? Does he have a timetable directing acts of love?"

  2. Sorted for E's & Wizz
    This one's a little different to the others. Instead of saying "we're here, you're there, and here's the line between us", it says "here we all are together" and then goes on to wonder whether or not that's actually a good thing. At a big rave party, there is no class, no division, just "twenty thousand people standing in a field". And it's great, for a bit, but eventually you'll have to "come down" and retake your place in society, however degraded and bland that may be. Frustrating, perhaps, but the alternative might be even worse - who'd want to be one of those people that "never come down"?

  3. F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.
    Man, that title's a pain in the bum to type out. While the chap who wrote Something Changed was desperate for love to descend from the heavens and sort out his life, the narrator of this song has stumbled into love and he makes it sound like a singularly unpleasant experience. Chocolates? Roses? Hollywood romance? No, no, and nope; this is a different, "dirtier" class of love, with chemical reactions and sick feelings in your stomach. It doesn't make no sense, it's not convenient, it doesn't fit your plans, but you've got that taste in your mouth and you've no choice but to act on it.

  4. Underwear
    As with I Spy, I'm not totally sure of what's happening in this song. But at the core of things, we seem to have a girl who is about to give herself to a bloke, even though she's not entirely sure she wants to. And then there's Jarvis, on the sidelines, complaining that he would die to see her semi-naked. There's a hint of jealousy, that 'why do girls like guys like them instead of nice lads like me?' sentiment that's a common side dish for many a high school crush. While the unnamed "him" feels entitled to bit of bump and grind, Jarv would have given his whole life just to see the girl in her underwear. There's something slightly naive about the lyrics, as if the narrator doesn't really understand that there's anything beyond underwear. But that's kind of the point - he's painting himself as a different class of suitor, a more friendly and less lecherous prospect than the guy she's about to get with.

  5. Monday Morning
    This one's kind of a sequel to Mis-Shapes, I reckon. The underdogs have finished school and they're ready to go out, grab the bull by the horns, and leave their oppressors behind. But instead of making the world a better place and stepping into "the light of a new day dawning", they opt to throw it all away; some get boring nine-to-five jobs, while others don't bother with work at all and jump head-first into a hedonistic party lifestyle ("I just can't seem to spend a night at home", laments Jarvis). Either way, they end up in a rut, a repetitive seven-day cycle that always comes back to Monday morning. Whether you're at work or just struggling to overcome your latest hangover, it's not a pleasant place to be.

  6. Bar Italia
    The album ends with an interesting twist on the working class/middle class divide. It's a new morning, and while the posh, middle-class businessmen are all heading off to work, the working class people have just emerged from the night's revelry and they're staggering off to a diner to get some breakfast. I haven't really commented on the druggy associations of the word 'class', but since there are three tracks on the album that deal with comedowns and hangovers (Sorted, Monday and Italia), I suspect that's probably an intentional pun. This is the lifestyle that the Greek girl in Common People wanted to get in on, but if Bar Italia's bleary-eyed narrator is to be believed, it's not all that desirable. We end in a Soho bar "where all the broken people go", and no sane listener would be left wanting to live the life they've just had a glimpse of.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Different Classes, Pt. 1

File:Pulp - Different Class.PNG

The title of Pulp's magnum opus can be taken in two ways. It could just be a slightly tongue-in-cheek comment on their own brilliance, but if you've heard Common People, you've probably realised that, hey, the title of its parent album doubles as a reference to social classes, too! Different classes rub up against each other many times over the course of this record; DC's Wikipedia entry suggests that "the British social class system...was a theme of some of the songs on the album", but today I'm going to argue, track by track, that there's a tiny class war being fought on every song. No exceptions.
  1. Mis-Shapes
    A pretty straightforward one to start off with: you've got the nerds like Jarvis Cocker, and you've got the thickos who terrorise him. They daren't go into town, they perpetually afraid of getting "a smack in the mouth", but Jarv & Co are determined to turn the tables with "the one thing we've got more of...and that's our minds!" It's brain versus brawn, simple as that.

  2. Pencil Skirt
    I've read one interpretation of Pencil Skirt which suggests that the song's protagonist is, in fact, a dildo. I reckon it's just a guy who's seeing an engaged woman, providing her with something wild and bad and fun to make up for the fact that her husband-to-be is a little ho-hum. She feels bad about cheating, but he doesn't care - he comes over anyway and gives her the rough love that her fiancé can't provide. He's a different class of lover; it's a battle between dull-yet-reliable husband material and fierce, adulterous pleasure, and the woman is struggling to pick a winner.

  3. Common People
    The class war in this one is kind of self-evident, so let's just have a listen and remind ourselves of what a great song this is:

  4. I Spy
    I've never been entirely sure of what's going on in this song, but here's my best guess: the narrator is a proud working-class chap, and he's kind of annoyed that his former best friend has gone on to become a successful, wealthy businessman. He feels betrayed that his pal "made it out" while he stayed "stuck" in his humdrum existence, and so he takes revenge on his chum by shagging his wife. The lyrics are packed with disdain for middle-class BS; witness this little excerpt:

    "Grass is something you smoke, birds are something you shag, take your year in Provence and shove it up your ass!"

    We then hear him talking to the wife, offering to "take her from this sickness, dinner parties and champagne" and make her body "sing again". Much like the narrator of Pencil Skirt, he's offering unhinged pleasure instead of the comfortable, boring lifestyle to which she's accustomed.

  5. Disco 2000
    My favourite example of the 'class war' theme. The big paradox of this song is summed up in four lines:

    "Your house was very small, with wood chip on the wall, when I came 'round to call, you didn't notice me at all"

    Deborah (deb-uh-ruh) is a working class lass, but while her house is far smaller and more squalid than what the protagonist is used to, she's still immeasurably more popular than he is. School life has a social system all its own, and while our man is probably pretty well-off in his home life, he's a complete nobody in the school yard. In the musical Blood Brothers, twin boys live completely different lives after one is adopted by a rich couple and the other is left with his working-class mum; Deborah and Jarvis were born within an hour of each other, and yet he can never hope to reach the same social standing as her.

  6. Live Bed Show
    Financial situations aside, one of the biggest class divides is the one that lies between those who are getting laid and those who aren't. The lady in this song made the uncomfortable transition from one side to the other, and she didn't go in the right direction. Landing in the singles bin is not much fun at all, and given how bland her life sounds now ("if this show was televised, no-one would watch it"), she might as well be in the poorhouse.
I'll tackle the second half of the album on Monday. Brace yourselves - it gets a bit complicated on Side 2.

Click here for part two.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

WMP Nominees - Fist of the First Man

The Welsh Music Prize shortlist was announced a couple of weeks ago, and I immediately decided that I was rooting for Praxis Makes Perfect by Neon Neon. It's a great album with great songs and a great back story (not to mention the great gig-cum-theatre performance it spawned) - what could possibly beat it?

And then I realised that I had absolutely no idea of what could beat it, because Praxis Makes Perfect was the only album on the list that I'd actually heard. The music I listen to tends to come from the States, and considering that I used to write for a local music magazine, I am shamefully ignorant of all the great stuff that's right on my doorstep. I'm familiar with most of the nominated artists: I've seen Racehorses and Fist of the First Man play live, reviewed a single by Little Arrow, and conducted a blimmin' interview with Metabeats (albeit via email). But if anything, these experiences just destroy any excuse I might have had for not listening to these albums.

So I've decided that every Wednesday between now and Swn Festival will be dedicated to one of the albums nominated for the WMP. I'll be having a listen to each album in turn, and deciding whether or not Praxis Makes Perfect really is the best of the bunch.

I'm starting with Fist of the First Man, because they were great when I saw them live (opening for Public Service Broadcasting last December) and I figured that the album would be equally good. I had to download it from FotFM's bandcamp page, because when I asked for it in Spillers I was told that the limited pressing had sold out (maybe time for a second run, WMP-nominated band Fist of the First Man?)

Sadly, when I finally sat down and listened to Fist of the First Man, I was a little disappointed. The songs aren't nearly as dramatic as I remember, and while that restless, uncomfortable energy is still present and accounted for, the studio stuff never sounds as dramatic, or as urgent, as the live performance did. The "industrial post-rock spaghetti western bazaar" has trundled out of town, it seems.

That said, when I did go back to my PSB review (mostly seeking evidence that I was listening to the same artist), I was reminded of how good the bass work was that night, and actually, it's still pretty awesome on the album. But something has definitely changed; Mothers Against Violence in particular is worlds away from what I remember, with soulful vocal samples that sound like DJ Shadow, of all people. Cool, yes, but not what I wanted from Fist of the First Man. it better than Praxis Makes Perfect?

Nope. It will take something severely stellar to top Neon Neon's second album, and while FotFM surely know their way around a groove, this album just isn't connecting with me. A few more listens might endear it to me a little more, but to the extent that I prefer it to Praxis? Doubt it.

Come back next Wednesday to see what I make of the next nominee. I haven't decided who it will be yet, but that all adds to the suspense, don't you think?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Susquehanna & The End of Summer

File:Eddard Stark.jpg

We've still got twenty days or so until the autumnal equinox (I looked it up), which means that it's technically still summer for another three weeks. Still, now that it's September, you definitely feel as though you've missed your chance to go to the beach, go swimming, go to a festival, go wherever it is you go in the summertime. School is back in, the eights in our dates have been usurped by gloomy-looking nines, and if you want to plonk your headphones on and have a blast of your summer playlist, this is your last chance.

I blogged about my own summer playlist back in July, but this is The Album Wall, and if you want to know which non-chopped-up albums I've been listening to this summer, the list would have to start with Susquehanna by the Cherry Poppin' Daddies.


The Daddies themselves have claimed that Susquehanna is to some extent a concept album, with the lyrics centered around "various relationships in decay". It's a break-up album, sort of, although songs like Blood Orange Sun and Wingtips move away from traditional love song territory to take a sideways look at mortality instead.

But regardless of what kind of concept the band was going for, I've got my own view of Susquehanna. Each song sounds to me like a little slice of summer, twelve* vignettes that paint twelve warm, sun-struck pictures. It's a ready-made summer playlist, and it probably covers more genres in forty-five minutes than my own fifty-track extravaganza managed in three hours or so.

So what summery scenes does Susquehanna show us? Julie Grave sounds like a long afternoon spent ogling girls outside a corner shop; Blood Orange Sun is a high school summer holiday gone awry. Breathe, with its jazzy flute part and international vibe, is the perfect soundtrack for hitting the bars on a hot July evening.

It's an album packed with vivid imagery - the fiery lovers flamenco-ing around a ruined beach house in Roseanne, the jaded old jazzman in Wingtips who crushes out his cigar and heads off to meet death - and this, combined with the vast variety of styles covered, ensures that boredom is an impossibility. Summer may be more or less finished for the year, but I'd still recommend that you get yourself a copy of Susquehanna sooner rather than later. That way, you'll have it on hand as soon as summer 2014 arrives.

*The album's thirteenth track, Arráncate, is a Spanish-language version of its first track, Bust Out.