Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 12

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Hope Downs

Initially I was a little sceptical about Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever. I found them just a little too clean, a little too obviously referential. Those doubts still nag away in the back of my mind but listening to Hope Downs I find it easier to suspend suspicions and enjoy the noises. Those noises are certainly infused with the spirits of a plethora of Antipodean antecedents and if they do not yet quite blend these spirits into something splendidly unique then at least we can say there is still time, there is still hope.

So RBCF are not as raw or edgy as contemporaries Terry, for example (whose ‘I’m Terry’ set would have been in this series for sure if I had not already listed both previous albums in previous years and really I kind of feel it’s already at a point where we can take it as a given that if there is a new Terry record then it will have been a favourite in the Unpopular world) and nor are they as strange and exploratory as, say The Verlaines. RBCF may lack the languid luxury of The Triffids or the exquisite, ineffable charm of The Go-Betweens, but they are getting there. They are getting there.

Getting away from the Southern Hemisphere references, let’s state that there are moments on Hope Downs when I’m reminded a little of Wes Gonzalez when he loved a guitar, and it is tempting to describe RBCF as something like Let’s Wrestle with the edges sanded off and the surface French-polished. It’s this polish that puts me in mind too of The Shins and perhaps then it is no surprise to see RBCF finding a home on Sub Pop. I appreciate that some fans of an older Sub Pop incarnation have found nothing of interest in the sheeny shiny Shins and so I expect will see nothing of worth in RBCF and that is fine. Me, I have no emotional attachment to that particular past and always could find the mood for a slick(ish) Indie Rock/Pop charmer.

At its best then, as on the excellent ‘Sister’s Jeans’, this short album is an exuberant sunlit tease. It knows what buttons to press and it clicks them in just the right order. Like much of ‘Hope Downs’, ‘Sister’s Jeans’ is opaque in meaning. There are real world references (“All along Sydney Road”) and details (“You stuck to your shirt, clung to your lemonade”), yet the whole barely holds together as a narrative. This is just fine as far is it goes, for there is more to art than storytelling, and ‘Sister’s Jeans’ is certainly adept at capturing the feel of anxious heat and nervous isolation. It’s the creation of shrouded, suggested meaning that RBCF do rather well across the whole of Hope Downs. It’s the sense of being caught in a whirpool of imagery in which everything is familiar and yet nothing is definite. Specifics blur to become texture and we grasp meaning almost by osmosis.

In the end then this is how ‘Hope Downs’ passes and connects: An album of brevity where words and notes twist and turn against themselves; a string of moments throwing abstract forms on a barely rippled lake. Looking ahead, I look forward to seeing squalls tumbling over the mountains to upset the balance, but for now this will do. This will most certainly do.

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 11

Ray Davies – Americana Vol 2

There was a strong temptation not to include the second volume of Ray Davies’ ‘Americana’ project simply because I wrote about Volume 1 last year and really what else is there to add at this point? Those of us interested enough surely know enough about Davies to last us to the end of our days, no? Well, perhaps not. There is certainly enough newness in the autobiographical tales Davies’ weaves on this record to keep our interest piqued for at least another year.

Now we have said many times in the past how Davie’s records have long been interested in creating a knowingly mediated and mythologised world. The lavish reissue of The Kinks’ ‘Village Green Preservation Society’ (now widely acknowledged as a classic) re-establishes this truth and as we said last year the Americana project certainly continues the tradition. In both these projects (and in many in between) Davies explores the (his) world via references and imagery that he acknowledges as being created by some form of media. Inevitably too, given age and experience, we find him now referencing himself in this process in a kind of intriguing meta-narrative. At times it is not particularly pleasant reading, as in ‘The Take’ which concludes with a nod to the starfucking excesses of 1970s Rock mythology that, in a 2018 of #metoo memes comes over somewhat vile (the argument being that of course it should because it always was). Yet there is never anything particularly apologetic in Davies’ songs. As an artist he has always rather seen his role as one of observation and construction of oddly illusory realities. It’s all theatre. All showbiz. All rock’n’roll.

What’s more, Davies appears unwilling or unable to escape from the world he has constructed for himself (even when, as he acknowledges on the terrific ‘Tony and Bob’, his self-destructive urges take hold) and as ‘Americana’ now unfolds it increasingly appears as much a conversation with himself as it is an unfurling of personal history. It is both heartening and somewhat terrifying to realise that in his eighth decade of life he is still embroiled in this dialogue, presumably in an attempt to reach an illusive inner truth. Partly of course what makes it so terrifying is the sense that this is an impossible search. Perhaps too this is what makes it so comforting. There is nothing but the journey, nothing but the unfolding eternity of the moments. Nothing but the fragmentary timelessness of the songs.

This notion is captured best on what I suggest is the best individual song on volume 2, the haunting ‘We Will Get There’ (and incidentally, ‘Americana’ feels very much in the mood of records like ‘Preservation’ Acts 1 and 2 in that individual songs play a supporting role to the overall narrative). The song feels both a meditation on this journey to light (in this Davies echoes those notions of quasi-religiosity we mentioned in Trappist Afterland’s Se(VII)en) that is at once deeply personal and expansively global. There is something in this song of age recognising the cyclical nature of time and ‘progress’, something that, as we age, we so often see with our own eyes. Yet is also suggests a broader and deeper sense of moving cyclically through a history longer and more permanent than the ones we fleetingly inhabit. The song seems to nod to the particular bleakness of our times, recognising the inevitability of both further descent and eventual transcendence.

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 10

Chaos Chaos – Chaos Chaos

Let’s get this straight from the start: I find it close to impossible to be objective about Chaos Chaos, for Chaos Chaos have emerged from the chrysalis of (pre)teen sensations Smoosh whose debut piece of 7” vinyl was released on my little Unpopular label far too many years ago to bear thinking about. Ditto that cover piece in Plan B that sparked our interest and I’m sure that Jerry will appreciate the Dexy’s nod to start this piece. Our jigsaw puzzles may have slightly different pieces but they all fit, right? Right.

Oddly then (or not), the one area where I can be objective about Chaos Chaos is in saying that I have no idea where they are at or are coming from. This is a compliment, reflecting the fact that for some years now I have been delighted to find myself in that place where Contemporary Youth Culture(s) are now completely and utterly beyond the scope of, if not my understanding, certainly my interest. And whilst my day job ostensibly keeps me in touch with whatever The Young People are consuming in reality it merely serves to highlight the chasm that has emerged. Certainly though there is something of the importance of gender/identity politics at play in Chaos Chaos (heck, it’s implicit in their very name isn’t it?) and if this plays out most obviously in ‘Pink Politics’ it is also hinted at in the cover photograph which will forever put me in mind of Lee Miller’s iconic shot of young women in fire masks during WW2, and there can be few more valid feminist touchstones than Miller (frustratingly, they have since replaced that cover with a colour shot which, whilst it may be more fitting for the record is a disappointment to any photography nerd). As we said, our jigsaw puzzles may have slightly different pieces but they all fit, right? Right. Yet it strikes me from listening to ‘Chaos Chaos’ and from glimpsing snapshots of Asya and Chloe’s Instagram lives that it is entirely possible that they themselves are inhabiting the fringes of their own contemporary culture, that they are searching for those corners where they feel most comfortable. Looking for where they fit, at least in part and at least for a while. Such is the curse/pleasure of Youth, after all.

‘Berlin’ certainly captures this sense of longing for belonging and the tension of enforced separation from the emotional connections we make to place, time and (almost incidentally) to people. I have listened to ‘Berlin’ many times this year and each time I cannot decide if this is a song that yearns for a return to a city of recent personal memory or if it is rather a song that sets its nostalgic sights on a mythic, mediated place and time (a Berlin of perhaps Isherwood, Lou Reed, Iggy and Bowie or any number of artists inhabiting any particular past). Sonically it feels like the later, in that it is the song on the album that perhaps most obviously and explicitly references a 1980s demi-monde of clashing and crashing synths desperately seeking redemption. It is by turns anxious, exuberant, hesitant, frustrated and euphoric. It is four minutes of darkness and light, of past, present and future. Chaos, Chaos. There is too a notion of division/separation, and if my reading of this is coloured by my own recent consumption of ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ and ‘Berlin 84’ then so be it. Yet there is certainly something of the ‘New Gold Dream’ about this ‘Berlin’ and that, again, is a compliment. Remember, our jigsaw puzzles may have slightly different pieces but they all fit, right? Right.

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 9

Amy Rigby – The Old Guys

Isn’t it interesting how things that are ostensibly within one’s galaxy of interest can nevertheless exist completely outside of the orbit of one’s awareness? So it is with Amy Rigby, whose solo records from the 1990s and early noughties really ought to have come onto my radar yet somehow didn’t. Ditto the albums made in more recent years with (husband) Wreckless Eric. Well, I say ‘recent’ for it has been six years since the last of those collaborations, but six years is both a lifetime and nothing at all when you are of this age.

‘The Old Guys’ then has been my first exposure to Rigby and whilst it certainly has had me scurrying back to uncover her earlier records, none have impressed me as much as this. For here, alongside what I now recognise as her trademark gift with a lyric, is what feels like a more robust and confident structure to songs and their sonic substance. But whilst it is a record rooted in what history might encourage us to call a masculine tradition of rock’n’roll, ‘The Old Guys’ is by turns funny, tender and yes, a record that isn’t afraid to call history out on that definition. One thing clear from listening to all of Rigby’s records (and a major pleasures of 2018 has been digging into those previous releases) is the sense of immersion in the cultural history of the music she is making. It comes over in the lyrics of course, notably in some of the song title references on ‘The Old Guys’ to Philip Roth, Bob Dylan and Robert Altman but it comes through too in the very fabric of the songs. These songs are threaded with knowledge and love. And incidentally, remember we were talking about Tom Petty and how it is only when artists die now that we really seem to make the opportunities to re-acquaint and re-connect with their treasures? Well Amy kinda riffs on that on the terrific ‘Tom Petty Karaoke’ which itself was inspired by seeing that video of J Mascis singing Tom Petty at, uh, a Karaoke bar and since we are on that riff ourselves let’s take in that Dinosaur Jr. cover of ‘Change of Heart’ whilst we’re here.

It’s the title track of ‘The Old Guys’ that I return to again and again, however. At its core it is the song that calls out history on its insistence on a masculine definition of rock’n’roll yet is also a song that celebrates the very things it despises; a song that simultaneously critiques the misogynist Rock culture whilst acknowledging her/our own complicit place in extending it (“keep laying tracks for the young ones to jump from”). Lyrically, Rigby seldom holds back, and there are some delicious moments in ‘The Old Guys’, notably early on when Rigby makes a dig at what I take to be the notion that as a woman in a male world, the most she could ever hope for is Not Very Much (“I set my sights for the middle, or somewhere below” followed by the barely concealed contempt of “say “Thanks for that” to the old guys”). Yet whilst she hardly pulls punches she does often dust the gloves with a wry humour. So inside those gloves are Robert Mitchum’s knuckles in ‘Night Of The Hunter’, Love and Hate combined in one simply complex relationship. There is something too in the way that the second half of the song is almost entirely bereft of lyrics, rotating in on itself in a cacophony of guitars that caterwaul against each other in a glorious dance of euphoric despair. It’s as if the song reaches a point where, point made, it can only jettison lyrical meaning and enter the realm of emotional response. It was that, now it is this. And this. And this. Tension and tease, confinement and escape into noise. Bliss.

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 8

Buffalo Tom – Quiet and Peace

Buffalo Tom were once vitally important to me. Their eponymous debut scratched me violently on release with its controlled wildness, its curious combinations of Power Pop tunefulness caked in earthy Rock’n’Roll primacy and a melancholic Americana poignancy that appeared to amount to significantly more than the sum of its parts. I swear to God that ‘The Bus’ can still make me shed a tear whilst ‘Impossible’ remains perhaps J Mascis’ finest recorded moment.

It pains me somewhat to say then that Buffalo Tom fell somewhat out of my favour and in hindsight the only explanation I can give is that we moved apart musically, culturally, whatever. Such an excuse is partly to hide the crippling knee-jerk response of disclaiming interest in a particular thing when ‘popularity’ (always, one suspects, rather relative when discussing anything that appeals to the Unpopular tastebuds) threatens. The flipside of which is of course the pleasure of revisiting those things in later years when such bizarre notions of ‘coolness’ have long since evaporated. Which means that I have for some years now been able to tell anyone who might listen that yes, ‘Let Me Come Over’ really was a terrific album and that ‘Taillights Fade’ maybe was one of the finest songs of the era.

Listening to ‘Quiet and Peace’ in 2018 then I am struck by just how fine a group Buffalo Tom sound in the here and now. There are threads of commonality to previous records of course, but ‘Quiet and Peace’ does sound like something newer, fresher and as warming as one might expect from a group who have not spent the seven years since their last record in each others’ pockets. Two cover versions (one on the original vinyl record, one a ‘bonus’ track on CD and download) really set the two opposite reference points for the album. Their take on The Who’s ‘Seeker’ is punchy, dynamic and entirely appropriate whilst the version of Paul Simon’s ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’ is plaintive, beguiling and infused with nods to the American Country Folk tradition that has long filtered into Buffalo Tom’s music. It’s the song that marks the gentler end of ‘Quiet and Peace’ and indeed ‘gentle’ is a key word here for even when Buffalo Tom thrash guitars and layer sonic waterfalls of power they always, at their core, sound gentle and pure. Remember what we were saying (and continue to say) about being soft yet strong?

This time around then it is for me those songs that most explicitly tap into a folk tradition that most appeal. Specifically this means that it is invariably the songs that Chris Colbourne sings which win for me. On cuts such as the power-popping ‘Roman Cars’ and the (bonus) beautiful, downbeat ‘Saturday’ with its line about “hair like Brian Jones” Colbourne reminds me so strongly of Stephen Duffy it is uncanny. His songs musically too are tinged with very much the same kind of folkie tints that The Lilac Time have employed to such effect throughout the decades, never more so than on the wonderful ‘Hemlock’.

Like ‘The Bus’ I suspect that ‘Hemlock’ will continue to haunt me down the years to come for it is very much a song that mines a rich seam of mediated memory. It is there in the explicit lyrical reference to being seventeen and “like a picture in a magazine”, and it is further rooted specifically in time with “’Ocean Rain’ in our ears”. Not a Bunnymen fan? No problem, for throughout the song a softly oscillating keyboard drone drifts in and out like the tides, often invisible but in the end there it is shefallying like Kerouac’s Pacific. Time, seas, or the sound of a record pressed just off centre and shifting in pitch just so as it revolves, creating new and personal meaning. The physical melds with the imaginary and we recreate nowness out of then-ness, here out of there, inside out of out.

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 7

Trappist Afterland – Se(VII)en

Trappist Afterland is not a name I was familiar with before 2018 and in truth would likely have completely passed me by if it were not for one of those serendipitous moments of occasionally converging interests combining in a wrinkle of time. So to Totnes on an Easter holiday evening, to a show promoted by a teenage fanzine writer (the sometimes intriguing Moof that dabbles in all things psych-tinted) in a room populated variously by youthful tripping hip(pie)sters, ageing hippie travellers (in time, in space, even in the physical world) and middle aged indie (no longer)kids (me and my friend Phil). None of these descriptions, incidentally, are meant pejoratively but rather in a warmly self-mocking manner. For if we cannot laugh out ourselves and the statements we make both explicit and implicit, then what on earth can we laugh at? It is only music after all.

On that evening then Trappist Afterland were something of a revelation, bridging the realms of pre-recordings and live performance with a peculiarly organic sense of improvised response within an oddly rigid structure. The same kind of uncertainty exists in the Trappist Afterland recordings for they each appear to adhere to their own sets of rules, each deeply rooted within the tropes of mystical folk music yet somehow sounding intriguingly contemporary. ‘Se(VII)en’ fits neatly into this carefully constructed mystical landscape as another element in song writer and multi-instrumentalist Adam Cole’s increasingly extended universe (being, as far as one can tell, the eighth release since 2012). Cole calls ‘Se(VII)en’ a collection of Gnostic folk songs and in truth they sound almost exactly as one might expect from such a description.

Choosing a single song from ‘Se(VII)en’, or indeed from any Trappist Afterland record then is difficult because there really is only one song. If you read that and see a criticism them in all likelihood you will not appreciate Trappist Afterland and that is fine of course. You may be the kind of person who does not see the beauty in a room of Rothko paintings, seeing only similarity and not difference within a deceptively simple structure. That is also fine.

After much vacillation then I opt to illustrate ‘Se(VII)en’ with penultimate track ‘Forest Mass’. It is a track that continues a thread common to several on the record by being tied to imagery of wood, forest, trees (‘The Blood In The Wood’, ‘Knot In The Wood’, ‘Elm and Bracken’, ‘Trace Your Root’). Todd Hido’s photographs of an impending darkness were referenced a few days ago as part of the rumination on Whyte Horses’ ‘Fake Protest Song’ and they feel appropriate again as a touching and jumping off point for much of ‘Se(VII)en’ and in particular ‘Forest Mass’. There is in both a deep connection to the earth although perhaps coming from almost opposite aesthetic directions. For where Hido’s photographs are almost epic, polished in execution and most definitely Modern, Trappist Afterland and ‘Forest Mass’ instead invoke the Medieval. Both, it must be said, anticipate an approaching Dark Age; Hido by gazing forwards and Trappist Afterland by casting back. If it is a somewhat discomfiting viewpoint then so be it, for these are not entirely enlightened and enlightening times after all.

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 6

Whyte Horses – Empty Words

Idly perusing others’ reviews of the Whyte Horses album it strikes me that almost all have fallen into the trap of using the dreaded ‘p’ word to describe the music. Hell, I’ve been guilty myself in the past, and not just when talking about the various episodes in the timeline of Dom Thomas’ always intriguing and exciting project. And so, as I start to say something about ‘Empty Words’ I set myself the challenge of not using the ‘p’ word. Either of them.

Let me start by admitting that I know next to nothing of the most ‘famous’ vocalists on ‘Empty Horses’, both La Roux and Melanie Pain being people I am familiar with by name only (and Pain only in the sense that I have heard of the Nouvelle Vague group). I could not swear that I have ever heard either singing on their own records and in truth hearing them on ‘Empty Horses’ has not had me scurrying to investigate further. Perhaps this is merely my perverse elitism at play but I prefer to suggest it is because neither Pain nor La Roux sound like ‘guests’ on this record. Rather they sound like established members of the one group, so well positioned do they appear. It is the same with the other vocalists Audrey Pic and Leonore Wheatley, both of whom I am much more familiar with through their work as members of the groups Envelopes and Soundcarriers. Indeed, it is Envelopes and their Francophile Swedish confections that Whyte Horses most closely resemble across ‘Empty Words’, for the record is filled with songs that could slip neatly into the company of great Swedish groups like Concetes, The Embassy (whose own ‘White Lake’ has tragically arrived just too late to make my advent list) or pretty much any of those great groups on the Labrador label. One also rather wonders if Dom Thomas tried to get Robyn to sing on ‘Empty Words’. That would surely have been a treat.

Soundcarriers too are a useful reference point in that the threads of interest in repetition and Sterolab-infused motorik rhythm are audible here also. Always, however, in subtle and sensitive ways. ‘Empty Words’ is no slavish reproduction of sounds and records of influence but rather an effective re-imagined collage. The joins are smoother and less clearly defined than on the first Whyte Horses album but this is no great criticism, for in some ways ‘Empty Words’ puts me in mind of when Scritti Politti moved from scratchy post-punk cultural critics to glossy smooth purveyors of commercial sweetness and there was nothing wrong with that after all. Of course it is entirely possible that songs from ‘Empty Words’ may have stormed the Real Music Charts in 2018 and that I have been blissfully unaware, so out of touch with such worlds have I been for the past few decades. This is no snobbish boast incidentally, just A Matter Of Fact. Did ’The Best Of It’ figure in the Top 40 rundown? Do they even have a Top 40 rundown any longer?

Certainly ‘Fake Protest Song’ features in my own Top 24 run down, as evidenced by this advent entry. It’s the song that makes a concrete connection to the first LP by featuring again the St. Barts School Choir. One rather assumes it is different voices (such is the nature of schools) yet there is a familiarity, a timelessness (such is the nature of a choir) that is both heartening and depressing. Heartening in that there are few things more naturally optimistic than children’s voices raised in song; depressing in that although there are changes, nothing much actually changes. This fits the mood of the song perfectly, for it is as a plaintive, vaguely optimistic (yet oddly mournful) plea to close the song that the children sing “Don’t follow me, we can be free”. This follows a section where the choir sings about “natural light” “shining so pure” and if it could be construed as a bit crass and obviously quasi-religious iconography, it nevertheless fits rather well as a conclusion to a song that roots itself sonically in traditions of ‘60s folk-rock protest song whilst simultaneously mocking both the tropes of that tradition and the manner in which contemporary ‘protest’ so often embraces the very tools and techniques used by those they ostensibly oppose. The song senses that in a world apparently trapped in an endless cycle of protest and counter-protest, a world of alligments built around ever diverging opposites, there appears to be no real opportunity to express disillusionment other than in forming another fractured following built around a tenuous notion of a shared identity. All this pressure to ‘identify’ as this, that or the other, all of it forming barriers and distance. Smallness, quietness, intimate calm is no longer an option and it is this that these gently plaintive children’s voices seem to be mourning most.

It feels odd to be concluding a piece about a largely euphoric and technicolor record on such a downbeat note, but perhaps it is entirely fitting, for Dom Thomas’ project is nothing if not a glorious contemporary evocation of past and future references. And if, as Todd Hido’s recent ‘Bright Black World’ photographs suggest, we are collectively marching into darkness and despair then perhaps we can at least do so with some glamorous songs in our hearts.

And at least I didn’t mention the ‘p’ word.