Several musician friends this morning retweeted the above thought by Mitski. I’ve enjoyed some of Mitski’s records (last year’s ‘Be the Cowboy’ had some great moments and often put me in mind of Jens Lekman) but I found the tweet even more interesting: “every song i write feels like the last song I’ll ever write, and the moment it’s done I fully forget how I did any of it lol. if artists were fully honest in interviews half our answers to Qs about “process” would probably be “i don’t know dude””. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is the reference to process that interests me, or more specifically the explanation of process. This is something our students are expected to do as part of their art/photography GCSE and it is always one of the most difficult things for them to do. The phrase I keep using in class is “you need to tell the examiner what’s going on inside your head” and I’m always intrigued by the differing degrees of response to this. Some are able to unpack that thinking process fairly well (I model it all the time when we do one to one tutorial sessions) but other just don’t seem able to do it at all. Of course this is all tied into metacognition and we know from research that metacognition is perhaps the ‘strategy’ that has the single most positive impact on learning.
Now I understand artists’ wish to keep the secrets of their creative processes hidden because it maintains the mystery and magic and it may be that Mitski is being somewhat disingenuous with this tweet because I really believe that if someone asked the correct questions (‘tell me about your creative process’ is rarely a question that will get you to that answer) she would have some really interesting insights into what happens. Mitski might genuinely feel she ‘forgets’ how she has written any one song but the ‘secrets’ of that process are clearly woven into her neural pathways. She does know, but she seems to be telling herself (or us) that she doesn’t. Perhaps this is a self-preservation mode kicking in or perhaps it is, as I said, a somewhat disingenuous dodging of the issue in order to maintain the mystery.
This is fine because as an artist you don’t have any exams to pass where someone is going to judge you on your ability to explain your creative processes, but from an educational perspective it is critical. It brings to mind a research project I did around 20 years ago (when funding still existed to facilitate such things) exploring the creative process within film editing. My findings from that project were largely around unpacking the creative process and debunking the notion of creativity as some innate skill or ‘gift’ and this has driven much of my own thinking (and practice) in education in the intervening years. My favourite phrase for a time (apologies to the colleagues who must have wearied of hearing it) was “the creative process is the learning process and vice-versa” and an intrinsic part of that creative process is that very metacognition that we know leads to progress. Mitski might want to think about that if she ever needs to pass a GCSE in art..
The Unsinkable Ship – Public Service Broadcasting (from ‘White Star Liner‘ EP) Can’t Chain – NUN (from ‘The Dome’ LP. Bandcamp) Handshake – THE EMBASSY (from ‘White Lake’ LP. Bandcamp) Oh, What a World – Kacey Musgraves (from ‘Golden Hour‘ LP) Morro Bay – Air Waves (from ‘Warrior’ LP. Bandcamp) Neon Moon – Cigarettes After Sex (digital single. Bandcamp) From When I Wake The Want Is – Kathryn Joseph (from ‘From When I Wake…‘ LP. Only You – Aidan Moffat & RM Hubbert (from ‘Ghost Stories‘ LP) Winter Kills – Yazoo (from ‘Upstairs At Erics’ LP) In Winter Still – Dot Allison (from ‘Afterglow’ LP) Camel Coat (Browning Version) – Saint Etienne (7″ single) Petrol and Ash – Pete Astor (7″ single. Bandcamp) Why They Name Whiskey After Men – Dawn Landes (from ‘Meet Me At The River’ LP. Bandcamp) Heart is Healing – Martha (digital single. Bandcamp) Preservation Law – The Native Cats (from ‘Spiro Scratch’ EP. Bandcamp) Permanently Wired – My Teenage Stride (digital single. Bandcamp) Isn’t Easy – School Damage (from ‘A to X’ LP. Bandcamp) Kids – Luluc (from ‘Sculptor’ LP. Bandcamp) Reflections After Jane – The Clientele (available on ‘Suburban Light’ LP. Bandcamp) Landscape Grown Cold – John Hartford (from ‘The Love Album’) Ring Them Bells – Bob Dylan (from ‘No Mercy’ LP) Madresfield – The Lilac Time (from ‘Astronauts’ LP) Took You Up – Courtney Marie Andrews (from ‘May Your Kindness Return’ LP. Bandcamp) This Will Be Our Year – The Zombies (from ‘Odessey & Oracle’ LP)
Breakfast reading for the past six months or has been The Atlantic Monthly magazine. This is attempt to both keep brain active and also avoid reading in any depth about Brexit and British Problems which all UK journals appear to be (probably) rightly obsessed with and which (probably) wrongly I have a desperate desire to avoid. Over toast (locally sourced sourdough, naturally) and coffee (black, naturally) I delved into article titled ‘Yes, America Can Still Lead The World’ (cheekily provocative title) wherein I was struck by a quote from Harvard economics professor Michael Porter who has apparently said that “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” Immediately struck dumb by apparent obviousness of statement, resonance with what I’ve been saying for the past couple of years in leadership meetings (colleagues no doubt bored to tears by my constant refrain of ‘yes, but if we do that what are we Not Going To Do?’) and deceptive difficulty in carrying through on aforementioned quote.
By some strange quirk of coincidence this quote is read the day after teaching year 9 about notions of interdependence, for I think it is this idea of interdependence that is central to Porter’s observation. For if strategy is too complex, too convoluted, then surely this creates more opportunities for errors? Complex strategy that focuses exclusively on Things We Are Going To Do runs the risk of failing to predict the interactions of the multiple strategy actions we put in place. Better surely to say “we will do this, and by doing this it means we cannot/should not do that because if we do This AND That it will potentially cause The Other (where The Other is something unpleasant and counter-productive to the aim of the strategy)”.
What does this have to do with education? Well, a lot I think. One example would be the battle against The Content. A bad strategy would be predicated on all the students having to get through all the content regardless, whilst a good strategy would be predicated on ensuring students are securing knowledge before moving onto the next piece of content. In this instance the strategy of choosing What Not To Do is inherent in that decision to be prepared to possibly/probably/definitely not cover all of the content. Again, this is much easier to say/write than to do in practice, particularly for heavily knowledge based subjects and teachers who may be very Set In Their Ways (the words pot black and kettle spring to mind here to which I plead Guilty As Charged).
Another example might be around assessment/marking strategies and teacher workload. If a school leaders’ strategy is to lessen workload (and it possibly/probably/definitely should be) by implementing less frequent but still effective assessment schedules then it is in the interests of everyone to clearly communicate What Not To Do (e.g. DO NOT mark every piece of work, DO NOT mark every line of every piece of work etc). Focus of monitoring/EQ procedures could similarly align with this consideration of What Not To Do and be predicated on nudging colleagues away from those practices and into thoughts on What To Do With All That Gained Time! Strategies for which might include Reading The Atlantic Monthly magazine over breakfast. Well, it’s a thought, right?
Disc 1 Fireworks – First Aid Kit BB – Daphne & Celeste When You’re Depressed – Go Kart Mozart Unto the Earth – Last of the Easy Riders Queen – Tracey Thorn Fake Protest Song – Whyte Horses Hemlock – Buffalo Tom Forest mass – trappist afterland The Old Guys – Amy Rigby Berlin – Chaos Chaos We Will Get There – Ray Davies Sister’s Jeans – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever Sixty Second Window – Alison Statton & Spike Wastelands – Suede
Disc 2 Bad Sugar – The Chills The Seaside Town – Deerful Sunset Drive – Deerful Growing Older – Princess Chelsea Of Their Bones – Oskar’s Drum Love Is A Momentary Lapse In Self-Loathing – Malcolm Middleton Free (The Original Memphis Recordings) – Primal Scream Sucking in the Sun – Flo & Spicey The Promised Land (Intro) – Bruce Springsteen The Promised Land – Bruce Springsteen All That Remains – The Left Outsides Make Time For Love – The Goon Sax Strange Light – The Goon Sax
What if I got it wrong? What if that record I adored when I played it to death in (insert month as appropriate, in this case) September suddenly fails to thrill when listened to again in the middle of December? Such are the nightmare thoughts that haunt the mind of the advent compiler as (self-imposed) copy deadlines approach and thoughts of ‘when am I going to get a haircut’ and ‘have I bought enough cheese’ battle for attention. Ah the first world worries of the privileged white male middle classes, huh?
Thankfully however the repeated listenings to ‘We’re Not Talking’ by The Goon Sax these past few days have delivered multiple thrills and put my mind at rest, at least as far as My Favourite Record Of 2018 is concerned (the haircut and cheese issues are, as of writing, terrifyingly unresolved). Turns out that it WAS the record I needed to buy multiple copies of after all (for the record – ahem – these were the pre-ordered black, the Rough Trade blue and the Monorail signed copy with mix CD). And yeah, multiple copies. I wasn’t kidding about the privileged white male middle class thing.
So much of the connection made by music (or any art) is wrapped up in personal contexts. It’s why some records, when we hear them again thirty years or more after we first loved them can either sound immediately familiar and evocative (and sometimes provocative) or strangely thin and emotionless. Occasionally they can be both of these things simultaneously, which is a moment of head battling heart, or of memories fading and being replaced by chilly objectivity. These moments can be sad or liberating depending on mood and uh-huh, context again. New contexts reconfigure our memory after all. Well duh.
What the fuck has this to do with The Goon Sax? Well, see, it’s the way in which ‘We’re Not Talking’ short-circuits the synapses in my brain and creates a thrilling space in which the essence of being Young and Foolish (or indeed Stupid) writhes and cries like a disembodied ghoul. The songs on ‘We’re Not Talking’ may be irrelevant to my life as it is now, yet they are at the same time impossibly valuable for they instil in me feelings and energies that inspire and provoke action. I mean, remember how we were always (still) talking about how Great Pop is about the IDEA of being sixteen? Well that. That in spades.
And uh, hey, just to be clear, this isn’t about wanting to re-live or reclaim any of those feelings. It’s certainly not about wanting to BE sixteen (seventeen, going on early twenties) again and it’s not even about wanting to be in situations where those feelings are created afresh. It’s more about enjoying the memories of the moments that created the feelings. A meta-memory, if you will.
So ‘We’re Not Talking’ is a time machine that takes us to moments that never occurred except in a self-mediated/medicated universe. And I say ‘us’ when of course I mean anyone over twenty-something or maybe thirty-something at a push. For everyone younger the rule is simply that ‘We’re Not Talking’ is the time-capsule in which you are ecstatically embedding the very essence of your being. All the fears, the desires, the ‘oh-no’s and the enormous ‘yeses’. Every one wrapped in the grooves of this record and gashed open again to be exposed like raw wounds you treasure forever. Because why wouldn’t you? And I mean, you ARE, right? (These last few sentences aimed at the one or possibly two People Younger Than Forty Five who might actually read this at a contemporaneous moment in time or who might have stumbled here from a future in which bored teenagers have the ability to focus for more than five seconds – in which case welcome and tell me if I ever found the time for that haircut and if I did, in the end, have more than enough cheese).
Look, ‘We’re Not Talking’ is, like that mix CD curated by the group for the Monorail free gift, all over the shop in terms of points of reference yet ultimately gloriously coherent. It is a record of a group who are excited by possibilities and overflowing with ideas BUT who know the value of leaving things out.
What do I love about ‘We’re Not Talking’?Well I love those, ah, what are those? I think it’s cowbells (in the video it’s certainly a cowbell) although they sound more like those wee wooden percussion blocks you hammer on in Primary school class… anyway, hell yeah I LOVE THOSE. Whatever the hell they are. They’re one of the first instruments you hear on the record (chattering like a dervish in ‘Make Time For Love’ and tell me was there ever a greater album opener anywhere at anytime that ‘Make Time For Love’? No there wasn’t. No there won’t be. Ever. Until maybe the next Goon Sax record) and every time they surface again (and they do! They do!) I’m all like grinning like a loon and thinking that it takes either a lot of guts or an enviable lack of self-awareness to insert a noise so primitive into a Pop song in this or any day and age. Breathe.
I love the way the bass guitar doesn’t sound like a bass guitar. I mean I have no idea if that really is a bass guitar but it’s THAT sound and the way in which it rolls me up and rocks me along the tracks, doing the delicate balancing act between earthy, primal rhythm and carefully considered composition (it’s the ACT that’s delicate of course, not the noise, which is gleefully indelicate).
I love the way guitars dart this way and that way and don’t give a fuck if they’re in tune or sync or whatever the hell you want to call it. I’m no musician (yeah yeah yeah you wryly observe that I’m no fuckin’ writer either but if that’s your idea then fuck you and you’d never dig The Goon Sax in that case anyway – and yeah, apologies for the swearing I know it’s unbecoming BUT BUT BUT remember what we are always saying – yawn – about context being everything) and I know all this sonic chaos is choreographed to elicit this feeling but ultimately it is this feeling. Breathe.
I love the way ‘We’re Not Talking’ knows when to breathe like Jonathan Richman.
I love that ‘We’re Not Talking’ has string arrangements that walk the line between arms uplifted to the heavens and feet that skip with the devil. The Goon Sax know that a short blast of colour can be so much finer than a technicolor extravaganza (though there is nothing wrong with that in the right place and when crafted by the right hand). In other words, The Goon Sax are a group that surely knows it’s worse to swagger than to stumble.
I love that ‘We’re Not Talking’ has drums that know when to take a back seat. I love the way it knows percussion is a more valuable tool for these songs (those whatever the hell they are we mentioned previously; the dark shadows of softly stroked plastic barrels; the restrained tap, tap, tap of biscuit tins and cardboard boxes – no I know they’re not but, but, but…). Traditional instruments used in ways that are now enshrined in new traditions crafted by generations of artists (you know the ones, but I swore I would keep Musical References out of this, or at least to a minimum or at the minimum be nods and winks) but that still have the energy to come across as unexpected in an entirely expected manner. Sounds dumb, right? Sounds easy, right? But if that’s the case how come so few artists can actually carry it off? In music, in painting, in photography, in film or whatever. Break the rules within your own set of rules. There is no sense but the sense of the feeling and the feeling of the sense.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. And don’t forget to dance.
I love the way that ‘We’re Not Talking’ dances. It dances close. It dances alone. It dances inside and it dances in its own secret public.
I love that ‘We’re Not Talking’ is a record that sounds like the embodiment of the fact that all the greatest Pop groups are trios. James, Louis and Riley sound like the most glamorous gang of lovely reprobates you could ever hope to fall in love with and every one of them has moments of individual brilliance on this record that send shivers down my spine. Yet it is also true to say that Riley, Louis and James compliment each other with a charm and a warmth that you can’t get other than by growing up together (as a group, as a gang, as friends, lovers, enemies) and that I’m so glad has been captured on record because who knows what tomorrow brings. Louis, Riley and James might stick together for years to come (I hope!!) and if they do then I look forward to at the very least a third album where perhaps (I can dream) they have the confidence to expand on those strings and do the Grand Statement in an eloquent fashion. Or not. Because equally, James, Riley and Louis might get bored of each other and chuck it all in, go solo, make films, photographs and books instead of records (or not), who knows… BUT, but but they’ll have left behind them at least two of my favourite albums of the late twenty teens and that’s more than enough to be grateful for, more than enough reason to pledge (fleetingly Popist) Love and Devotion.
Sunrise has yet to do anything more than create the faintest of lightenings to the sky. On the valley floor patches of mist sit impassively, flooded fields shining faintly through like swathes of silver. Out of the mist rear the mighty electricity pylons, receding up the valley like a column of sentries guarding ineffectually against the coming dawn.
Thus do my morning commutes often begin in the months of December and January and when they did so last week to the soundtrack of The Left Outsides’ gorgeous ‘All The Remains’ they provided moments of rare synthesis between sound and vision. Of course I know that Jude Rogers made reference to The Left Outsides evoking “chilly fields at dawn” (a notion I like to think picks up the cover photo from their first release, a 3” CDR on my ‘i wish i was unpopular’ label) in her review for the Manchester Guardian but it does bear repeating. And didn’t Rob Young make a point about the magic of electricity pylons punctuating the landscape in his terrific ‘Electric Eden’ book? I am sure he did as I’m equally sure my heart leapt when I read those words, falling on me as one of those enormous yeses that Larkin wrote about.
‘Electric Eden’ is certainly a relevant reference point for The Left Outsides for they are so very firmly rooted in the traditions of English Electric Folk music, having grown and developed over the years to be really one of the most reliably wonderful acts around. Yet if each of their previous albums have been beguiling collections of moments that touch on the half-forgotten imprints of an English folk tradition, there is something about ‘All That Remains’ that marks it as a significant step forward. Perhaps it is in the way they now embrace the electric elements of their music in such a confident manner. Never afraid of quiet and space, on ‘All That Remains’ it seems like Alison and Mark have now found the perfect place for noise and atmospheric claustrophobia. Of course ’noise’ is relative, for the electricity of ‘All That Remains’ is that of TVs tuned to white snow, guitars conjuring that barely penetrable valley mist. Perhaps as if Phil Spector was producing Soft Machine if you need that more historical musical connection made in your synaptic core.
The space and quiet is still there of course and it is still mesmerising. ‘All Those I Danced With Are Gone’ is Felt’s ‘All The People I Like Are Those That Are Dead’ performed as a funeral march (yes, that good) whilst ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s late nineteenth century tale of mental health transfigured as contemporary illustration, eloquently pulling threads from the past into a tapestry of the present. Throughout these and other songs on ‘All That Remains’ drifts Alison Cotton’s voice as an almost disembodied presence, like the vapour trails of Kendra Smith softly dissipating into the outer atmosphere. And if Cotton’s viola and harmonium drones are perhaps less prominent on ‘All That Remains’ than on previous Left Outsides records (saved, perhaps, for the darker shadows of her excellent solo outing ‘All Is Quiet At The Ancient Theatre’) then that is no criticism for it allows partner Mark Nicholas’ guitars and drums a more central position, pulling some songs deeper into the psychedelic folk underworld. Nicholas’ own vocals, incidentally, make a great counterpoint to Cottons, being fundamentally more earth-bound whilst retaining the sense of spooked transparency essential to the overall aesthetic. He sounds best on the enchanting, droning ‘Down To The Waterside’, a tale of blissful escape from modernity underpinned by a haunting darkness. It is the soundtrack to Jem Southam’s exquisite photographs of my own Exe valley or Matthew Genitempo’s of foggy landscapes, hermetic homes, and rugged men living in solitude in the dark woods of the Ozark mountains in Arkansas and Missouri.
It is the title song on the album that I have most often returned this year, however. A shimmering five minutes of mesmeric illusory loss and longing, ‘All That Remains’ is, like the entire album, a meditation on the places that exist between dreaming and waking, between real and imagined, between past, present and future. As guitars glisten and shiver I am reminded of 14 Iced Bears’ magnificent ‘Dust Remains’ from their criminally undervalued eponymous LP (thankfully recently given the reissue treatment by Optic Nerve) and that is no bad thing for both songs are certainly connected by notions of a kaleidoscopic vision photographed in muted palettes (lets note too that Andy Martin’s terrific wet collodion portrait of the duo is such a perfect visual encapsulation of their aesthetic as imagineered voices from a mediated past).
On ‘All That Remains’ it seems as though The Left Outsides have lifted tenderly the forgotten blossoms of gentle psychedelic folk and woven them into a crown of understated magnificence which they wear with disarming confidence. Hail the king and queen.
It is just three years since I wrote and told anyone who was interested (not many) that I had cast off my cloak of ignorance and had fully embraced the magic of Bruce Springsteen. I use the word ‘magic’ advisedly of course, for there is certainly something of the magical about all great Pop music (Springsteen would call it Rock’n’Roll and that’s fine too). Alexis is right in his own review of ‘Springsteen On Broadway’ for the Manchester Guardian when he talks about how with these shows Springsteen has explicitly acknowledged the artifice inherent in all of his work (hell, he howls it out with delight in the opening few minutes). It is a point that exposes the myth of ‘authenticity’ in Springsteen’s or in anyone’s art, a point that reinforces the point that Pop is entertainment and that entertainment is theatre (of the mind or of the physical). In this Springsteen is firmly in tune with Ray Davies or Princess Chelsea and I find this comforting and fitting.
Live records are difficult beasts and there are few that I would willingly listen to over a studio recording. Springsteen is one of the few to occasionally buck this trend (it can only ever be occasionally) and I truth I probably own more Springsteen live recordings than any other artist (this in spite of the fact that it is, as we said, just three years since I actually started hearing him in any kind of positive light). Oddly too the very reason I have enjoyed live Springsteen recordings is for the element that makes most so frustrating: the between song talking. Springsteen has always been gifted at this and it should really be no surprise because storytelling has always been such an essential part of his songwriting. It really hit me one evening early in 2016 when I was driving home from work and listening to a recording of a contemporaneous Chicago show on the stereo. As the soft backing to ‘Independence Day’ started up Springsteen began talking about the relationship he had with his father and how this informed and drove the song. Now this would have been a week or so after the two year anniversary of my own father’s passing so I realise this inevitably coloured my emotions at the time, but I swear to god I nearly had to pull over to the side of the road because the tears were welling up so bad. And this before he even started singing the damn song. A couple of days later I listened to another show from the same tour and sure enough there were exactly the same words delivered in almost exactly the same way. The emotional impact was lessened slightly by the knowledge that it was all scripted and rehearsed to a polished performance but only slightly. Only slightly. The magic persisted.
It’s clear now that in those 2016 shows Springsteen was very much laying the groundwork for his excellent ‘Born To Run’ biography and in turn for the Broadway performances. In truth too you could/would/should say that all of his shows and recordings throughout his entire career were the foundations for the Broadway performances, a thought that itself suggests what Whistler said about a five minute drawing taking a lifetime to make. Art historians will doubtless tell me I have either misquoted or misappropriated here but as Springsteen would certainly agree, we should never let the truth get in the way of a great story.
The presence of family and particularly of fatherhood looms large in Springsteen’s great story and he revisits this on a regular basis throughout the Broadway production. The power of this theme to connect is another example of the trick of theatre, of Pop, of rock’n’roll, but it is to his credit as a magician that Springsteen can so effectively reach deep into our souls and wrench our hearts so deeply and touchingly. We know we are being manipulated through a trope obviously employed for emotional connection yet we willingly open ourselves up to this and we revel in it for the duration. This willingness to surrender to the trick, this desire to be duped is an intrinsic part of the deal we make with the magicians. It’s what makes the relationship between performer and audience work and it is immeasurably more difficult to carry off than some would credit.
Paddy MacAloon (in)famously wrote some semi-disparagingly lines to Springsteen, saying that “there’s more, much more than cars and girls”. Now I love Prefab Sprout almost as much as I (now) love Springsteen but surely Paddy knew then and knows now that whilst what he wrote is true, it is true only to a point. Springsteen’s records themselves have proven this over the years but if there is an essence to which his narrative returns again and again it is to this (knowingly) mediated mythology of movement, distance, longing and loss. Because of this there is inevitably perhaps the spirit of Kerouac coming through in much of Springsteen’s storytelling, never more so as when he ends the eleven minute ‘intro’ to ‘Promised Land’ by reading the extract from ‘Born To Run’ (the biography, not the song) where he is riding across the country of the U.S.A. for the very first time. If it does not quite match up to Kerouac himself half-mumbling about god being pooh-bear (and let’s face it, what could, for the sound of Kerouac reading is the most perfect you could ever hope for) it’s still a lovely passage perfectly delivered.
And the songs? Well, the songs themselves are fabulous. Of course they are. And if they suffer somewhat by deliveries that have by necessity something of the cabaret singer to them, this is a sacrifice that is, on the whole, worthwhile. For in this context the songs are sacrificed somewhat to the theatrical performance. The songs almost become bit part players, plucked from their origins and made to serve a different narrative of which they are simultaneously a part and apart from. It’s almost like Springsteen himself has duped his own songs into being something they are not, illuminating them with a follow-spot and calculating the sight lines just so.
In the end (actually right from the beginning) we pay no attention to the man behind the curtain because we know he is weaving the spell we do not want to be broken. We know his magic is in illuminating our lives and our worlds in ways we know we could never quite do ourselves. And if that sounds just a little self-defeating, like Princess Chelsea “being inspired to write a song that’s not as good” it shouldn’t. Because just as each of those smaller illuminations are every bit as valuable as what Springsteen makes, in truth they also serve to show the distance between the really good and the truly great.