Friday, February 28, 2014

Comfort Songs

If you're, like, freakishly obsessed with The AlbumWall, you may remember that I briefly mentioned Cloud's Comfort Songs in this blog. That mini-review was written after listening to only one or two tracks from this album; since then, I've had a few full runs at it, so I figured it was high time I gave Comfort Songs a proper blogging.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Am I Supposed to Understand This?

"Beneath his surface of corruscating omniscience beats a kindly heart. He seems to want you to be in on his jokes, to share the joyous agility of his conceptual and linguistic leaps, the abundance of his cornucopiously stocked memory, and not to sit gazing at him from the cheap seats in resentful admiration."

The above quote is taken from David Gates' introduction to Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme, a book that I just started reading. Now, I've read some Barthelme before, and his stories are bonkers - they mess tirelessly with structure and language whilst constantly teetering on the edge of nonsense. Much of Forty Stories (the Barthelme collection I've already read) seemed designed to baffle; Gates' introduction was reassuring, in a way, because it suggested that Barthelme's writing actually does make sense if you read around it. Apparently, Barthelme was always happy to explain himself when questioned in interviews and the like. It's just that he draws from a very diverse reference pool, one that no normal human could hope to comprehend.

All of which got me wondering about albums. Do bands and artists do enough to help us fully understand their work? And how often do they actually want us to understand it in the first place?

Songs and albums are like frogs - it's hard to dissect them using only your ears. If my Silver Gymnasium blogs taught me anything, it's that hearing something is rarely enough to form an idea of its meaning, no matter how hard you listen. I mean, my guesses about that album were all over the place until I glanced at the liner notes - I thought it was about a hiking trip gone awry, when really it's Will Sheff taking a good, long look at his smalltown childhood.

That's one important distinction between books and albums: the liner notes, which give the artist a platform to flesh things out and reveal a little more about the songs on the CD. The Okkervil River album came wrapped in all kinds of supplementary material, and while none of the answers it provided were especially straightforward, it certainly helped to bring the album to life.

And that's before you discover the interactive map.

Of course, some artists squander this platform and opt to waste the inlay on band photos and artist credits. Do they do this because they don't want us to over-analyse their music when we should be enjoying it? Or because they think the meanings are self-evident? Or because they want us to listen for ourselves and draw our own conclusions, instead of being spoon-fed the 'true' meaning?

There's a whole 'death of the author' argument that I could get into here, but instead, I'm going to show you a conversation I had on Twitter recently. For reference, Fbb is a rather good song from Quiet Marauder's MEN (a.k.a the best album of 2013):

So this is an example of a guess theory I came up with when I didn't have any actual facts to hand. And, as it turns out, my guess theory was actually more interesting than the golden nugget of truth at the heart of it all. In fact, Simon from Quiet Marauder said it himself:

So perhaps this is why artists don't spell it out on the back of the sleeve. Not so much because they name their songs by slapping the keyboard and hoping that someone will read too much into it, but because song meanings are more interesting when the listener chisels 'em out on his or her own. Even if your guess theory is wrong, it's still valid and it ensures that the song will always mean that little bit more to you.

One plea, though, to songwriters. I don't care if you hide your song's meaning behind oblique poetry and obscure pop culture references that only Google will be able to explain to me. I don't care if you get all coy and evasive whenever an interviewer asks what the hell it all means (this, incidentally, is a crime of which Quiet Marauder certainly cannot be accused). I don't care if you take those secrets to your grave, leaving your fans to piece together whatever small meanings they can, forever frustrated by the knowledge that they're probably incorrect.

Just promise me that there's a meaning in there somewhere. It's no fun cooking up theories about, say, Monkey Gone to Heaven by the Pixies...

"See what I'm saying?" God, shut UP fourteen-year-old me.

...only to read in an earlier comment that the tantalising numerology of that song only came about because 'seven' rhymes with 'heaven'.

Why are you ruining my fun, Frank Black and cor_heaven?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Yoshimi and Her Pink Robots

For every proper concept album in the world, I'd wager that there are at least three non-concept albums that people just read too much into. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is a prime example of 'feels like a concept album but apparently isn't' - check out this excerpt from the album's Wikipedia entry:

"Despite the story-type title and science fiction themes of the album, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne has made it clear that the album is not intended to be a concept album."

However, this denial hasn't stopped fans from making up their own stories, spotting narratives and running themes that probably never even occurred to The Flaming Lips when they were making the album. I've read several theories about Yoshimi... in the past, and two in particular stand out:
  1. Cancer
    Yoshimi is a young girl suffering from cancer, which is represented by the pink robots. The 'battle' stuff is a story that the girl (or perhaps her parents) have made up to explain and make light of the chemotherapy that she's about to undergo ("she's gotta be strong to fight them/so she's taken lots of vitamins"). In the end, the treatment doesn't work (from All We Have Is Now: "we're not gonna make and me were never meant to be part of the future") and the closing instrumental, Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon, is representative of the little girl dying and ascending to heaven. I know, it's a depressing idea, but it really fleshes out the album - Do You Realize??, for example, is even more affecting when you imagine that it's being sung to this dying girl by her mother or father.

  2. Robots in Love
    A slightly cheerier prospect, this one. The robots are just robots this time, but one of them -Unit 3000-21 - is a little different to the others. He is able to feel human emotions, as detailed in One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21 ("one more robot learns to be/something more than a machine/when it tries the way it does/makes it seem like it can love"), and he ends up falling in love with Yoshimi, his enemy. In The Morning of Magicians is sung from his point of view, and it's essentially a heel face turn set to music; Unit 3000-21 is questioning his motives, struggling with the difference between love and hate, good and evil. I like the implications of this theory where Do You Realize?? is concerned - lines like "do you realize/that happiness makes you cry?" sound like they could well be posed by a robot who doesn't quite get how emotions work yet.
I think it's human nature to look for a story in everything, and that goes double for albums, which are often a lot more interesting when there's a thread tying everything together. Sometimes, it doesn't even matter if that thread is made up - hacking together a story of your own is often more enjoyable than simply accepting that those eleven songs don't really have anything to do with each other.

For more concept album guesses, check out this blog post that I did a while back.

Disclaimer #1: No, I don't remember where I read either of those theories.

Disclaimer #2: Yes, I realise that neither theory provides an adequate explanation for the orgasmic screams in Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 2.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Clap Your Hands...

Here is something that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah posted on Twitter last night:

This announcement made me very happy indeed. CYHSY have been one of my favourites since I first got my hands on their debut album - that was back in 2007, and many of that CD's songs now number among my most listened-to of all time. There's Details of the War, the bruised, beautiful torch song that introduced me to the band; there's Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood, the audacious album closer that ends with Alec Ounsworth repeating the phrase 'child stars' about fifty times, which always thrilled me when it probably should have really annoyed me; and then there's The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth, the loose-limbed centrepiece of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah which, for a time, was a serious contender for my favourite song of all.

I think a lot of people consider the other two CYHSY albums to be somewhat disappointing, but I quite like them. Some Loud Thunder is certainly challenging - I can't imagine anyone who would enjoy listening to the muffled, distorted title track - but it's also the album with Satan Said Dance on it, which is more than enough to exonerate it. Songs like Yankee Go Home and Love Song No. 7 are pretty smashing as well, not to mention my personal favourite Mama, Won't You Keep Them Castles in the Air and Burning? It's like this album's Details of the War.


Third album Hysterical is even better. It caught some criticism for sounding like The Killers, and while I can certainly understand that comparison, their jerky, nasal take on The Killers' brand of skyscraping American anthemica certainly works for me. The first three tracks (the soaring, skittering Same Mistake; the breakneck title track; and the lovely Wasted Youth, which is this album's Mama, Won't You Keep Them Castles in the Air and Burning?) form one of the best opening one-two-three punches I've ever heard.

It's hard to know what to expect from the new album. There hasn't really been any pattern to their releases so far - I suppose that Hysterical, a reasonably accessible album, could be construed as a reaction to the confusion that Some Loud Thunder elicited, in which case the new'un will probably be more experimental again. I'm vaguely aware that they released a new EP recently...does anyone know what that sounded like?

Actually, it doesn't matter. Regardless of what the new CYHSY album is like, I'll probably go to Spillers and buy it and listen to it and enjoy it. They're a special band, and if they're currently absent from your collection, I recommend righting that wrong ASAP.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Reports of Snow

Break-up albums are at their best when they're painting the break-up as if it were something bigger and badder. Nick Cave spends much of The Boatman's Call acting like his lover died instead of merely leaving; Secrets of the Witching Hour takes the end of a relationship and turns it into the apocalypse, like an epic pop update of The End of the World by Skeeter Davis.

And then there's Reports of Snow. Abe Davies, the man behind Reichenbach Falls, sent me a copy of his album to listen to and, hey, it's good! If you like Wilco and Ryan Adams and the like, you should hop over to bandcamp and give Abe a go because you'll probably like him too.

But I digress. Reports of Snow pulls The Crimea's trick several times over, framing its earth-shattering breakup as a blizzard, a plane crash, a murder, and goodness knows what else. I'm gonna spotlight a few tracks to dig out the guts of this set:
  • Drink & Drive
    This is the opening song, and it serves as a warning of the trouble to come. It opens with a soft, tinkling piano figure that - appropriately enough - sounds just like falling snow; in the chorus, Abe observes that "she's just another way to drink and drive", already aware that this relationship could well end in disaster.

  • In The Wreckage
    By the time we reach track 4, the inevitable split has already hit. In The Wreckage finds Abe waking up on the morning after the break-up as the memories come flooding back to him: "I woke with the blast and remembered, felt myself feeling it all". He then follows "the smoke and the sirens", returns to the place where they "put [them]selves to rest", and picks through the debris, exploring the remains of his dead relationship. Some things, he discovers, were "dead before the blast", suggesting that this calamity may have been a long time coming.

    Oddly, the song's repeated refrain is a holler of "its a miracle!" Is it a miracle that he survived? Or is he happy, on some level, that the dreaded break-up is now over and done with, a thing of the past? Perhaps there is a sense of ripped-off plaster relief in the aftermath: "I think of us as the fallen leaves that never have to fall again".

  • Blessed Blush
    This is where the album's title comes from: "I made up dreams about dying, I made up reports of snow." Why did he make this stuff up? I'm not completely sure that I'm hearing the lyrics correctly, but I think Abe sings that it was "just to leave a trace". When I initially thought about the title, I assumed that the "reports of snow" were those tragic, tell-tale signals that your relationship is heading into dire straits. In the light of that line, though, I wonder if those reports were actually the little lies that our protagonist told his lady friend in the hope that she'd find him a little more interesting, or at least think of him a little more fondly after the end.

  • In The Woods
    When I mentioned murder, this is the track I was talking about. It starts off sounding very creepy indeed: "In the woods, there's a search party now, my room I hid the body" Wow - is this a poetic metaphor, or is he telling us that he literally murdered his girlfriend for breaking up with him?

    But later lines make it clear that the murder simply stands for the end of whatever it was they had: "The grave was the bed where we slept, and carved on the headstone the secrets we kept". If the relationship has died a death, then this song is the funeral, and we are watching the pallbearers lug away the remains.
I recently finished reading a book called This Will End in Tears; it's all about miserable songs of various types, and there's a whole section dedicated to break-up songs. The author mentions the common "heartbreak=death" trope, as seen in He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones and the Nick Cave material that I mentioned earlier. For the various ways in which it portrays breaking up as something far more disastrous, Reports of Snow may well merit a mention in the second edition.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Beyond 69 Love Songs

If you've already got 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields, you may feel that there's no need to investigate their other albums. And, really, that's fair enough. The jumbo-sized triple set is undeniably career-defining; Stephin Merritt did set out to write an instant, standalone songbook, and the resulting album requires no extra embellishments. Besides, sixty-nine songs is more than many bands accumulate across their entire career.

Still, if sixty-nine songs didn't satiate you - if those three discs merely whet your appetite for magnetic goodness - the MF discography has plenty of other gems for you to unearth. Excluding 69 Love Songs, a total of nine albums have been released under the Magnetic Fields name, and while I'm not sure any of them are actually better than the big one, they're certainly well worth a look.

So, which of the 'other' Magnetic Fields albums should you check out first? Well, here are three suggestions..

Want to see where it all began?

It's hard to pick the better of the first two MF albums - Distant Plastic Trees has the hits (including 100,00 Fireflies) but album #2, The Wayward Bus, feels a bit more cohesive and fully-formed. Fortunately, you don't have to choose one or the other, because as of 1994, both albums are included on one jam-packed CD. These are the records that featured Susan Anway, not Stephin Merritt, as lead vocalist, and her shy-sounding vocals (combined with Merritt's sticky sweet synthesisers) make this the perfect springtime listen. Wait for a sunny day, grab your headphones, and go for a walk.

My favourite tracks from The Wayward Bus/Distant Plastic Trees are When You Were My Baby, Candy, Smoke Signals, and - of course - 100,000 Fireflies.

Want more high-concept brilliance?

The Charm of the Highway Strip is my favourite MF album outside of 69 Love Songs. It's based around themes of travelling and loneliness (not to mention the vampires), and the swathes of synth-country that fill this disc truly are a treat. Think George Jones meets New Order. It sounds great no matter how you listen to it, but I reckon it would sound best if you, like the various protagonists, were hurtling down a lonely road in the middle of the night.

My favourite tracks from The Charm of the Highway Strip are Long Vermont Roads, Born on a Train, and I Have the Moon.

Want more like 69 Love Songs?

When trying to pick the MF album that most resembled 69 Love Songs, I initially thought of Get Lost, which features a nice blend of gentle romance (With Whom to Dance?) and more intricate synth stuff (Smoke and Mirrors). But I eventually decided that i, the LP that came directly after 69 Love Songs, was a better fit. It's the first of Merritt's 'no-synth trilogy', and probably the best of his post-69 albums, with plenty to offer the listener who loved the triple set and aches for more. In an Operetta recalls the frilly genre play of For We Are the King of the Boudoir, while the chamber pop stuff like I Die and Irma could be compared to any number of its predecessors. Elsewhere, I Thought You Were My Boyfriend is an electro-pop raveup that contains no electronics, and Infinitely Late at Night harks back (sort of) to Love is Like Jazz. The album's gimmick, incidentally, is that every song title begins with the letter 'I'.

My favourite tracks from i are I Thought You Were My Boyfriend, I Was Born, and It's Only Time.

So there you have three potential launchpads for your leap into the wider world of The Magnetic Fields. Enjoy!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Albums from Sarah

It's Valentine's Day, and in the spirit of love and romance and deep, meaningful connections, I've decided that today's blog post will be a list of albums that I'd never have heard if it hadn't been for Sarah, my girlfriend of nearly four years. Well, I might have heard them eventually, but it would have taken a lot longer and they wouldn't have been nearly as meaningful anyway.

Harvest by Neil Young
Some people use OkCupid or to find their twoo wuv. I used Sad and nerdy though it sounds, Sarah's outstanding taste in music was a big part of why I found her so attractive in the first place - her 'Top Artists' bit was packed with great bands that none of my friends liked, including British Sea Power, The Decemberists, Interpol, Brakes...I could go on. Her #1 artist, however, was a man whose music I'd never really listened to: Neil Young.

I'd heard of Neil Young, naturally, but I'd never really bothered to investigate his albums. Then Sarah came along and, eager to interact with this pretty girl and her A+ music knowledge, I asked her which of his CDs I ought to start with. She recommended Harvest, I purchased it for £5 from Rise Music in Bristol, and - sure enough - it turned out to be a good recommendation. I especially liked A Man Needs a Maid, with its big orchestral flourishes, and Words (Between the Lines of Age), with its funny time signature that eventually resolves into a hard-rocking chorus.

Want Two by Rufus Wainwright
One of my favourite things about music is that two people can have completely different experiences of the same artist. For example, Sarah and I both liked Rufus Wainwright, but where I knew him for Poses - Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk, The Consort, and so on - she knew him for Want Two. To Sarah, Rufus Wainwright meant songs like The Art Teacher, Little Sister, and several other songs I'd never heard until we met.

We both still insist that 'our' album is the better one, but even if I do still prefer Poses, I will concede that Want Two is a great, great album. Especially The One You Love, a jagged little stomper that sounds great on the CD and even better when you see it live (as we did in Portugal a couple of years ago).

Comfort Eagle by Cake
This was only last year. We were in Barnado's, I was flicking through the CDs, and I came across a Cake album called Comfort Eagle. The only Cake songs I knew at that point were Italian Leather Sofa and their cover of I Will Survive; since Comfort Eagle contained neither, I was happy to leave it on the rack. But Sarah, who already owned their fifth album Pressure Chief, assured me that this was one purchase worth making.

She was right, as she often is.

Comfort Eagle is a cracking album, packed with catchy tunes and fun characters (the opera singer, the Austrian nobleman, the couple in World of Two). It's a great driving album, as I've mentioned previously, but more importantly, it's a fantastically enjoyable album - an album of trumpets and funky guitars and brilliance.

A Present for Everyone by Busted
I know I mentioned Busted several times in the One Direction blog, but they bear mentioning once more today. I'd obviously heard quite few of these songs back in the day, but some years later, it was Sarah once again who advised me to get the album. Writing about her now, she seems like my personal music advisor as much as my girlfriend.

A Present for Everyone is one of Sarah's favourites from when she was younger, alongside Pink's Missundaztood and the eponymous All Saints album. She insists that it is superior to Busted's self-titled debut, and I think she's probably right - that album does boast such classics as Without You and Psycho Girl, not to mention its clutch of stellar singles, but Present... still edges it out. The likes of She Wants to Be Me, 3AM, Crashed the Wedding and so forth make me wish I still went to school, so that I could listen to those songs on the way home.

Datarock Datarock by Datarock
Y'know that pre-relationship period? When you haven't kissed or been on a date or anything like that yet, but when you're already talking to each other as much as most proper couples? That was a fruitful period for me, music-wise. Sarah and I used to chat on MSN, swapping song recommendations and, by and large, enjoying everything we heard (well, I enjoyed everything - only Sarah knows if she truly liked the stuff I sent her way). One of the many, many songs I discovered during those conversations was Computer Camp Love by Datarock.

The synth-heavy music and the deadpan, Grease-referencing vocals made this one of the most memorable tracks from those MSN days, and we recently came across this album in Rise (again) for only a few pounds. I bought it, of course, and I'm happy to report that the rest of the album is just as good. Fa Fa Fa is my favourite - it's an elongated dance workout that actually manages to hold a candle to LCD Soundsystem, who of course are everyone's #1 dance band.

Sarah likes LCD Soundsystem, too, as if we needed any further proof that she knows her stuff. Here's another great song she introduced me to - Here Comes a Special Boy by Freezepop, which itself introduced me to an outstanding webcomic called Achewood.

Happy Valentine's Day, everybody!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Midnight Memories: Track-by-Track

It kind of goes without saying that One Direction have their detractors. Vast battalions of teenage fans and the best-selling album of 2013 have failed to change the minds of 'real' music fans who see the group as an icon of the manufactured, Cowellian crap that clogs up the pop charts and steals the limelight away from all the 'proper' bands who actually deserve to be successful. Proper bands like...I don't know, The National?

Okay, I'm being condescending when perhaps I shouldn't. I strongly dislike The X Factor, and 1D are a product of that big, grim machine - surely I can't profess to like them while claiming to despise their creator?

Well, that's just it. I've never really listened to One Direction, and so I don't know whether or not I like them? Obviously I know What Makes You Beautiful, but that song is a couple of years old now, and it may not be representative of the current, world-conquering 1D that we now live with.

Now, I have very little time for arguments of authenticity. Sure, there are bands on my CD rack who worked their way up from nothing, playing broken guitars in empty rooms until their blood, sweat, and songwriting talent finally paid off and they got to record an album of original, heartfelt material that really says something about the world. But I also have albums by Destiny's Child and Busted; I've even got Phineas and Ferb-ulous: The Ultimate Album, featuring such hits as Gitchee Gitchee Goo and S.I.M.P. (Squirrels In My Pants).

My point is that, if a song is good, is doesn't matter who made it or how many songwriters/marketers were involved in its creation. I don't have any credibility left anyway; thanks to The Adventurous Adventures of One Direction, I can already name those five guys, so I may as well see if their music is any good.

Without any further ado, then, I'm going to listen to Midnight Memories by One Direction, and share my thoughts on each and every track. All fourteen of them. Here goes...
  1. Best Song Ever
    I think I heard this in Tesco's the other week. It opens with a nice burbling synth line, and the chorus is plenty catchy, so I'm cool with it. There's even a fun 'oh oh oh/yeah yeah yeah' bit that we can all sing along with. Wait, did they just namecheck Georgia Ruth? *checks the lyrics* Okay, false alarm. It was Georgia Rose.

  2. Story of My Life
    Not a cover of the Social Distortion song, as part of me was hoping. This actually sounds a bit like Mumford & Sons, which is not what I expected. See, he even mentioned his heart! This one is a bit bland, to be honest. It's lacking the killer, sticks-in-yer-head chorus of Best Song Ever, and the attempts to sound earnest just come as, well, boring. The quiet bit near the end works quite well, though, I'll admit.

  3. Diana
    Better, more upbeat. It's actually got a little bit of the Busted spunk to it, which is definitely a good thing. Reminds me of Falling For You, a little bit. Yes, I can get behind this one, as long as they promise it's not a tribute to Princess Diana. I'm reasonably certain it isn't, but you can't be too careful.

  4. Midnight Memories
    It's clear from the off that this is one of those 'here's what it's like to be a rock star' songs. That's never a good sign, really, because those songs either come off as boastful (if they're talking about the good stuff) or ungrateful (when they try to convince us that the high life is really hard). This one seems to be more of the first stripe, as the 1D boys get "straight off the plane to a new hotel" before heading to "a big house party with a crowded kitchen". No, it's not very good, although the chorus does sound a bit like Beverly Hills by Weezer, so...yeah.

  5. You & I
    Okay, I'm noticing a recurring theme here: all of these songs make me want to listen to Busted. This one has me pining for Without You, which served a similar purpose (acoustic power ballad) on their eponymous first album. Still, where that song was about feeling lonely and heartbroken, this song is far more hopeful - a 'we're going to be together forever' kind of thing. I quite like it, actually; it's not up to the standard of Busted's best weepies, but it's solid enough, and it's got a good false ending about two-thirds of the way in.

  6. Don't Forget Where You Belong
    I quite like the melody of the verses here, but it does put me uneasily in mind of Nickelback. I can definitely imagine Mr Avril Lavigne singing this song, and that makes it somewhat harder to enjoy. No such problems with the chorus though, which could quite easily have been cribbed from a B*Witched single. I keep expecting a tin whistle solo, but instead we get a drum lift - you know, the part where the instruments drop out and it's just the singing and the drumming, so that everyone can clap along and feel really awesome about life when the music comes back in again. Formulaic? Maybe, but it's fun.

  7. Strong
    I'm actually surprised by the variety of these songs. This has a faintly Spanish vibe, which is very cool (been breaking out your big sister's old Ricky Martin albums, have you boys?) I was expecting two or three brilliant pop singles (like Best Song Ever), followed by a dozen or so tracks of bland acoustic guitar-based filler, but it's all been surprisingly colourful so far.

  8. Happily
    See, and this one's got a Hank Marvin guitar line thing going on! This album doesn't 'alf keep you on your toes. I don't like the "we're on fire now" bit, though - it seems like it's solely there to give the fans yet another big singalong bit at the climax of the song. You can stop doing that, 1D. They'll be singing along anyway.

  9. Right Now
    This sounds like someone else is singing. Have they deployed a guest vocalist here? *performs Google search* Doesn't look like it, although I did discover that Don't Forget Where You Belong was co-written by Dougie from McFly. There's also a song later on called Something Great, which credits Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody as a writer. Bet that'll be one of the boring ones. As for Right Now, well, it wasn't much to write home about. It sounded like it was waiting for a big, clubby chorus that just never arrived.

  10. Little Black Dress
    Ooh, we're a rock band now are we 1D? They actually make a fairly convincing go of it, although the far more boy-bandy chorus does rather give the game away. Not bad, though; a bit throwaway, but then none of these songs have been especially deep.

  11. Through the Dark
    Okay, now they really sound like Mumford & Sons. Are they trying to cash in on the whole nu-folk thing? I wouldn't have thought that 1D would need to cash in on anything. The embarrassing thing (for Marcus Mumford, at least) is that it's as good a Mumford & Sons song as Mumford & Sons themselves have ever performed. Okay, that's maybe not true - I do quite like that Winter Winds song. Jeez, all the big confessions are coming out today, aren't they?

  12. Something Great
    Here's the Gary Lightbody track, then, and while the verse is exactly the sort of filler I mentioned earlier, the chorus actually works pretty well. Its got a nice kind of swoop to it, and together with the cool instrumental break, it probably deserves to be part of a better song. Oh, and what the hell is that "you're all I want" bit at the very end? Got lost on the way to your own song, did you?

  13. Little White Lies
    Wait, is this supposed to be a response to Little Black Dress? The yin to that song's yang? Because, if so, that's actually quite a clever move. Aside from the titles, there's not much to suggest that the two songs are connected, but hey, bloggers will have their unfounded theories. This one's pretty good - very processed, but that's not really a big problem with this sort of thing. It's kind of the point. I can't help but feel that it would be better if the beat underneath went twice as fast, though. It feels like it should be bouncier than it is.

  14. Better Than Words
    Not all that interesting for a closing track. They name a couple of good party songs (Crazy in Love and Dancing on the Ceiling) before ambling towards a pretty lifeless chorus. Might sound better after a few drinks and a night of partying, but that's not the sort of thing that 1D's target audience ought to be up to, really. I realise I've been pretty positive about Midnight Memories, and I have been genuinely enjoying it, but this a good opportunity to needle the very, very dull lyrics that have been omnipresent throughout these fourteen tracks. See, this one is about how Harry or Liam or whoever can't articulate how much he loves his girlfriend, because their love is 'better than words'. A dull cliché, and a pretty bad excuse at that. I wouldn't be satisfied by that if I were Taylor Swift.
So that was a One Direction album, and I just listened to it. On the whole, it was pretty good; Midnight Memories has more hits than misses, and it managed to avoid the pitfall into which I was expecting it to tumble, i.e. leaning too heavily on the singles and forgetting to include any decent album tracks. In fact, I can imagine most of these songs being hit singles, and for an anodyne, mass-produced pop record that was spawned by the evil mechanism that's slowly suffocating the music industry under humanity's own lack of imagination...well, that's what I call a success!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Scottish Jams

By the time you read this, I will be in Scotland. Sarah and I have taken the week off work and gone away to the land of her fathers, where thistles and white heather flourish on the banks of Irn-Bru rivers.

In celebration of this much-needed holiday, I thought I'd take a little meander through the Scottish portion of my The Album Wall. Bonnie Scotland has contributed a surprising amount of smashing music to my collection over the years, and it's high time I acknowledged that fact.

Mogwai are the obvious starting point. The first 'Gwai album I bought was Come On Die Young - you may remember that I blogged about it back in January - and since that happy little slab of sunshine first disappeared into my CD player, I've enjoyed a long and lusty affair with the band's music (I'm actually listening to Rave Tapes, their latest album, as I type this). Seeing them at Cardiff's Coal Exchange on the Mr. Beast tour was a truly monstrous, mammoth experience; thinking back, I'm kind of surprised that my ears ever stopped ringing after Glasgow Mega-Snake.

But Mogwai are only the tip of my Scotrock iceberg! Arab Strap are almost as well-represented on my CD rack, and that's a pretty inspiring achievement given that the first AS album I heard was purchased on an uninformed whim. I remember picking up The Last Romance from a record shop in Inverness (or possibly Aberdeen...this was quite a while ago) because I wanted to sample the local music and I though TLR's cover art looked pretty cool:

I was instantly a big fan of that album, especially the neckbreakers (Speed Date and If There's No Hope For Us), which still rank among my most-beloved Arab Strap tracks of all.

After The Last Romance - which, fittingly, turned out to be the final Arab Strap album - I leapt into the band's past, starting with the career-spanning compilation Ten Years of Tears and gradually picking up their studio albums when the chances presented themselves. Philophobia is my favourite now, with its slow-burning arrangements and Aidan Moffat's lyrics at their hilarious, brutally honest best.

Of course, Moffat continued to make music under his own name, and I've got two smashing post-Strap Aidan Moffat albums on the rack: Everything's Getting Older and How to Get to Heaven from Scotland. They're both real gems; I've already written a track-by-track dissertation on what EGO means to me, but How to Get to Heaven... is equally close to my heart, so be sure to check that out if you haven't before.

Also of note: Aidan Moffat's astoundingly funny relationship advice column.

Looking somewhat further north, we come to Colin MacIntyre, a.k.a. Mull Historical Society. I first got into MHS because Loss, MacIntyre's first album, seemed to be on every Amazon list I encountered (Listmania was an important source of good albums in my early days - OK Computer, for example, was purchased off the back of many, many Listmania recommendations). I got it cheap off eBay, and I strongly suggest that you do the same; MacIntyre's peculiar brand of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Hebridean pop is irresistible, and while the albums that followed are very good too, Loss remains his magnum opus.

Of course, if we're talking about my 'early days', we must touch upon Travis. I loved Flowers in the Window long before I knew what a Radiohead was, and their Singles compilation was one of the first things I thought of once I'd decided that, yes, buying CDs was something I did now.

Like The Great Beyond by R.E.M. and Sitting Down Here by Lene Marlin, Flowers in the Window was one of the songs that really caught my ear when it was in heavy rotation on Radio 2 back in my primary school years. Happily, Singles turned out to be one of those albums where you're familiar with more songs than you realised - neither Coming Around nor Why Does it Always Rain on Me? were new to me, and they sat quite nicely along cool new discoveries like Re-Offender (love the chorus), The Beautiful Occupation (love the verses), and Happy (love it all over).

Sticking with the theme of early discoveries, let's talk about Idlewild, baby. The Edinburgh outfit were the first band I ever saw live (they supported R.E.M. at the Millennium Stadium back in 2005), and while my mind wasn't exactly blown at the time - I was very, very far away from the stage, in my defence - I grew to love them soon enough. I got The Remote Part for Christmas that same year, and loved it from top to bottom, from the first snare drum crack of You Held the World in Your Arms to the last, stunning chords of epic closer In Remote Part/Scottish Fiction.

I eventually arrived at the noisier end of Idlewild's catalogue, where 100 Broken Windows and Hope is Important reside. It's hard to choose a favourite from Idlewild's first three albums, but I feel like 100 Broken Windows might edge it; it's the perfect combination of chaotic, punky Idlewild (as captured on Hope is Important) and big, skyscraping Idlewild (who came into their own on The Remote Part).

It's been a while since Idlewild put out an album, but the band's constituent members have done some good stuff too. Guitarist Rod Jones has a band called The Birthday Suit, who are pretty excellent:

Roddy Woomble has done some solo stuff, too. I don't actually have any of his albums - packed with folky loveliness though I'm sure they are - but I did see him play in Aberdeen shortly after the release of My Secret is My Silence in 2006. That gig was remarkable enough, with virtuoso backing musicians and cool, stripped-back versions of some Idlewild favourites; however, the support band made it even better.

I don't think Foxface are still a going concern, but that's certainly a shame if so. They had this sort of angry folk-rock thing going on - their album is called This is What Makes Us, and I'd definitely recommend it. You can get it on bandcamp - click here if you fancy.

The last band I'm going to talk about are a far more recent find. Last time Sarah and I were in Scotland, we went to a record shop in Glasgow called Love Music. I asked the guy what he recommended, and he introduced me to Woodenbox with a Fistful of Fivers. His description of them (I don't remember it word-for-word, but it involved the words 'gypsy' and 'trumpet' in fairly close quarters) was enough to sell it to me, and fortunately, my faith was rewarded:

As per usual, I can't find the best songs on YouTube (ugh, what a hipster I am), but take my word for it - Home and the Wildhunt is a great album that deserves your attention. The best ones, of course, are the ones that push the trumpet to the fore, like spaghetti western suicide song Hang the Noose and the strutting, self-assured Twisted Mile.

It seems a shame to stop this blog post now, with so many great Scottish acts left unmentioned. This has become quite a long one, though, and so the likes of Camera Obscura, Frightened Rabbit, Belle & Sebastian, The Murderburgers, The Aliens, Errors, Cosmic Rough Riders, My Latest Novel, Kid Canaveral, The Pictish Trail, Edwyn Collins, Franz Ferdinand and Alasdair Roberts will have to wait until the next time I go to Scotland. In the meantime, I'm off to see what's new at Love Music...

Friday, February 7, 2014

Mississauga Goddam

Thanks to my uncanny talent for losing stuff, I recently endured a week or so with no iPod. Now, it's not like I just stopped listening to music during that period - how torturous would that be? - but the lack of a portable player did make my journeys to and from work far, far quieter than usual.

Happily, I've got the iPod back now (my friend JR found it in a sleeping bag when he crashed on my sofa the other night), and I'm thrilled to bits because, among other things, it means that I can listen to Mississauga Goddam on the go again. This album was well on its way to being a new favourite when the iPod went missing; to be so cruelly and abruptly robbed of those songs, and at a time when I was just beginning to really appreciate them, stung pretty bad.

But now I've got them back, and everything's good again! Forever!

This CD cost a mere £3 from Bristol's own Rise Music, and boy howdy was it a bargain. The catchy wordless choruses that were all over AWOO are all over this earlier album, too, which is very good news - check out the galloping, William Tell-esque hook that leads The Fear is On into battle:

I remember that, shortly after hearing AWOO for the first time, I read Joel Gibb's description of his band as 'gay church folk music' and being a little confused. Mississauga Goddam is a much better fit for that subgenre; the 'church' part is audible in Music is My Boyfriend's choral breakdown and in the religious imagery that adorns That's When the Ceremony Starts, while the 'gay' part is, well, everywhere. Here are some choice lyrical cuts:

"I drank from the wine that came from inside the heart of his meat and the splurge of his sweet"
- That's When the Ceremony Starts

"In the union of wine, I may be lost but he is mine, to be on top from behind and the odour of the refined"
- In the Union of Wine

"I believe in the good of life as I kneel for a taste of man"
- I Believe in the Good of Life

The winter olympics it ain't. But the best thing about this album isn't its racy lyrics, nor is it the exceptional hit ratio. The very best thing about Mississauga Goddam is Gibb & Co.'s fantastic grasp of tension and release.

The last two tracks are the best examples. I Want Another Enema builds and builds, sticking on one chord and filling up like a bucket until, finally, the bucket tips over and washes into a stellar chorus about being addicted to hair removal. The closing track, Mississauga Goddam, pulls a similar trick; it starts with this gorgeous melody, then takes it away for just long enough to make us thing that we're not going to hear it again...and then it comes back again.

As a songwriter, I'm extremely jealous of Joel Gibb. I feel like I've cheated whenever I repeat a verse or something, and yet this guy can get away with singing "I want another enema" over and over again, inexplicably infusing it with more desperation than a thousand sixth form poems. Aggravating.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

On the Green Man Lineup

Truth be told, I was beginning to lose my faith in Green Man. I first attended the festival in 2009, which meant that I witnessed amazing headline sets from both Jarvis Cocker and Wilco. The following year was even better, not least because it gave me my long-awaited opportunity to see The Flaming Lips live.

But 2011's lineup was a little...disappointing. The three headliners were as follows: Fleet Foxes, who were dull as dishwater; Explosions in the Sky, who were okay but not really exciting enough to be headliners; and Iron & Wine, who were admittedly excellent, but hardly as life-changing as Wilco and the Lips were. 2012 was an improvement (Mogwai are always a pretty safe bet), but 2013's trio of headliners left me feeling let down yet again, and I decided for the first time in five years not to bother with the annual pilgrimage into the mountains. I mean, Ben Howard? Really? In the same slot that Wilco filled only a few festivals earlier?

Of course, the headliners are only a slender slice of the story, and by skipping out on last year's festival, I did miss great undercard acts like Midlake and Edwyn Collins. Besides, one of the best things about any festival - and Green Man in particular - is going to see bands that you've never heard of before and maybe, just maybe, discovering something worth cherishing.

But my point remains: somewhere between The Flaming Lips and Ben Howard, the Green Man Festival caught a bad case of diminishing returns. However! The first bit of the 2014 lineup was announced yesterday, and thankfully, it seems like the guys in charge have genuinely upped their game.

Exhibit A: Neutral Milk Hotel.

Hey, didn't we hear this one a week ago?

Jeff Mangum has been playing NMH songs at solo shows for a few years now, but the full band only reformed about nine months ago. It's very cool that Green Man have gotten them involved, and I reckon that Holland, 1945 and the various parts of The King of Carrot Flowers will sound bonkers good on the Mountain Stage (or whatever it's called nowadays).

There is, however, a snag. I've already got tickets to the Optimus Primavera Sound festival in Porto this June, and guess who one of the two currently-confirmed artists is? Yeah. And since I'll already have enjoyed the luxurious Milk Hotel by the time August rolls around, Green Man will need more than Jeff Mangum 'n' Palz if it's going to get me in a tent.

So. How is the rest of the lineup looking? Looking at the list that materialised yesterday, I'm most interested by the presence of Sharon Van Etten, who released a very good album called Tramp back in 2012:

I ought to revisit that one, really. Other promising prospects include First Aid Kit (who were excellent in Flaming Lips year), Anna Calvi (who'll be nicely dramatic), and - yes - Georgia Ruth, winner of the 2013 Welsh Music Prize (any excuse to link back to that, eh?) Beirut will be good, too, although I'm not entirely convinced that Zach Condon et al should be one of those all-important headliners.

All of that said, I won't be shelling out for a Green Man wristband yet, and not just because I'm going to Scotland next week and want to save my money. I'm not saying that I'm definitely going to double my one-year hiatus from the festival, but I'm at least going to hang on until the next wave of bands is announced.

In the meantime, I'll be getting excited about the Primavera lineup, which will be properly announced this Friday. The Pixies and Neutral Milk Hotel is already a pretty great lineup, but a few more knockout bands wouldn't go amiss.

Monday, February 3, 2014

If Everything was the End

Richey Edwards, lyricist and rhythm guitarist for the Manic Street Preachers, disappeared on the 1st of February, 1995. A year and a bit later, the remaining Manics released Everything Must Go, a huge album that found the group abandoning the gristly, confrontational sound of their previous record and making a move towards swooping strings and big, anthemic choruses. The Holy Bible is still the critics' choice, but Everything Must Go was arguably the band's first real step towards the fame, success, and Welsh national treasure status they now enjoy.

Understandably, Everything Must Go is often portrayed as the beginning of Manics Mk II; their first album as a trio, with a markedly more radio-friendly sound and Nicky Wire taking on more lyrical responsibility than ever before. It's the album that gave the world A Design for Life, which has pretty much become the MSP's signature song (not to mention their go-to set closer). This second incarnation of the band even found success in the singles chart, reaching the #1 spot with If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next from 1998's This is My Truth Tell Me Yours.

Who would have guessed that the band who recorded The Intense Humming of Evil would one day have a #1 single?

But here's the thing. The way I see it, Everything Must Go looks every inch the swansong, an album that the band intended to be their last. Until Journal for Plague Lovers arrived to dig up the past in 2009, EMG was the last Manics album to feature any lyrics by Richey Edwards, and I wonder if the band initially meant to release those last few songs and then call it a day.

The album title is very significant to this theory. 'Everything Must Go' is the sort of phrase you'd expect to see in the window of a shop that will soon be closing down.

Photo by fsse8info

Of course, if the Manics were planning to shut up shop after Everything Must Go, the album's critical and commercial success may well have been the factor that persuaded them to change their minds. Had they split at that point, they'd not only have been quitting at the height of their powers, but also at a time when Nicky Wire had just proved himself more than capable of handling the writing duties. Only three of EMG's twelve tracks were authored by Richey and Richey alone. They were:
  • Kevin Carter
  • Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky
  • Removables
Another two songs - Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier and The Girl Who Wanted to Be God - credit both Edwards and Wire as lyricists. This means that Nicky Wire wrote more than half of this album's lyrics on his own, and almost without exception, his songs were the big hits. Kevin Carter was the only Richeysong to be released as a single, and it didn't crack the UK Top 5 like A Design for Life and the title track did.

So by this point, it's becoming clear that the Manics can function perfectly well without their troubled lyricist/rhythm guitarist. Factor in the glowing reviews (Vox magazine's write-up noted that "professionally, at least, the Manic Street Preachers don't miss Richey") and a triumphant live tour (which spawned the equally triumphant concert movie, Everything Live) and suddenly, Everything Must Go seems less like an ending and more like a rebirth. Would you have quit after all of that?

Still, I wonder what the world would make of the Manic Street Preachers if they'd stopped after Everything Must Go. I should mention that I'm only acquainted with two of the LPs that followed - This is My Truth... and Lifeblood - so I can't really comment on the quality of their recent output. But I think that, if they had left it at four albums, they could have been one of those really big cult bands, a colossal, iconic band whose T-shirts people wear without ever listening to a note of their music.

They could, basically, have been this generation's Joy Division. James, Nicky and Sean could even have done a New Order, reforming under a different name and carrying on from there whilst leaving the tragic brilliance of the Manics untouched.