Running behind, catching up. Always catching up and then falling behind. Up, behind, down, around. Repeat repeat repeat.
So it’s Tuesday. It’s Thursday. It’s Saturday again and never again, again. Drip the honey on your tongue, slip the tunes around your torso. What did we miss? What did we miss? Modernity insists on progress wrapped in nostalgia. Persists within anxiety cloaked in need.
We nearly missed RVG. Out of Melbourne out of Adelaide out of place out of time. A set of raw but ravaging live recordings released in 2017 and a single in 2019 that blinks in the blur of a Liberty Belle cascade on a Wide Open Road. See, it makes me clumsy. Forces me to stop. Start. Start. St-st-st-stutter step stop. Suede sweeps of charity shop jewels. Toys we lost in the floods and cares we found in the flames. The fleeting preening of a genderless Manics berating themselves in mirrors cracked and foxed. Delicious is over-used and this music is why.
We nearly missed S-Bends, who are also Australian and also sound exquisitely out of time and place. A gentler sound but scratchy enough to leave tender bruises. A five year old debut EP that is full of empty desire and the echoes of our dreams of tomorrow. A cover of a Rowland S. Howard number and a string of digital singles in 2019 wrapped up with luxurious extras in a set called ‘Nothing Feels Natural To Me’. Perhaps, perhaps, but this sounds naturally awkward and delicately poised on the edge of a forever that resonates to the sound of Jonathan Richman’s little dinosaur hitting (the) Pavement. The darkness trembles and eases a subtle wayward nervous smile. A song about visiting an I.C.U. at Christmas feels violently personal and churns my stomach. So good to be reminded we are alive. A song about inheriting an ’81 Datsun Pulsar that shivers with regret. A song called ‘Two States’ that hovers betwixt and between. Here nor there. Her not here. Slow-mo dreaming of Peugeots in the Sahara and the sound of Magpies and mogadon rain on the roof.
Here’s to a new decade. Same as the old decade. Running behind, catching up. Catching up and then falling behind. Up, behind, down, around. Repeat repeat repeat.
We borrow our post title from a compilation by Felt, and it feels an apposite one for what follows: A decade of Unpopular mixes.
There were mixes on the blog before 2010 of course, and we are slowly going back to fix download links on those posts. Not entirely certain why, as there are only ever likely to be of handful of people interested at any given point in time, but… it feels like the Right Thing To Do. Also we hate leaving things broken.
Nocturne – Landshipping (digital single. Bandcamp) Crank Resolutions – Meursault (from ‘All Creatures Will Make Merry’ LP. Bandcamp) New Dawn – Withered Hand (from ‘Ten Years’ EP. Bandcamp) Catch – Dana Gavanski (from 7″ single. Bandcamp) Lucid I Would Dream – Miranda Lee Richards (from ‘Existential Dream’ LP. Bandcamp) Two States – The S-Bends (from ‘Nothing Feels Natural To Me’ LP. Bandcamp) Her Father’s Son – East Village (from ‘Hotrod Hotel’ LP. Bandcamp) Heavy Blue – The Hanging Stars (digital single. Bandcamp) Set Me Up Boys – Teeniest (digital single. Bandcamp) You and Your Sister – sparkle*jets u.k. (from 7″ single. Bandcamp) He Will Always Come Back – Chaos Chaos (from ‘Withershins’ LP reissue. YouTube) Lilac – Porridge Radio (digital single. Bandcamp) Roles Reversed – The Electric Soft Parade (from ‘Stages’ LP. Bandcamp) No Rock Save In Roll – Cornershop (digital singleYouTube) Hard Times (feat. John Grant) – Whyte Horses (from ‘Hard Times‘ LP) The Kids Are Having None of It – Frazey Ford (digital single. YouTube) Shadows Break – Mega Bog (from ‘Dolphine’ LP. Bandcamp) Chi Mi Bhuam – Burd Ellen (digital single. Bandcamp) Thicket – Mark Tranmer (from ‘Further Woodland’ LP. Bandcamp) Afterwards – Josephine Wiggs (from ‘We Fall’ LP. Bandcamp)
The Claim – ‘Hercules’ from ‘The New Industrial Ballads’ LP
Back in March of this year we told you about the welcome reissue of The Claim’s ‘Boomy Tella’ LP. It was so good we told you twice. Thirty years, we mused. Blinks of eyes and all that. We hinted too that there was a new LP by The Claim due for imminent release and that first glimpses suggested it would be a peach. We were not wrong.
Thirty years is a long time between albums. Not even the Stone Roses or My Bloody Valentine took that long. It’s apt then that The Claim wholeheartedly embrace this span of time on ‘The New Industrial Ballads’, both suggestively through sound and explicitly through, well, through a song called ‘Thirty Years’ in which Vic Templar revisits his ‘Mike The Bike’ tale, riffing both on nostalgia and retro-futurist sci-fi. And Elvis. Of course Elvis.
‘Thirty Years’ is a telling element of ‘The New Industrial Ballads’ because it would make little sense to anyone not already entirely familiar with the flip side to The Claim’s ‘Birth Of A Teenager’ 7” for Bob Stanley’s CAFF label. Its inclusion here shows that The Claim are comfortable acknowledging their place in time. They could have been contenders and then they weren’t. Yet like Forster’s figure in ‘Remain’ the Claim are no Terry Malloy characters filled with bitterness and recrimination. Certainly fires still burn fiercely in their collective belly, but we cannot live on anger alone. We find balm where we can. Seek succour in our communities, however small they may be. The Claim, in the end, are comfortable with their audience. Forever Unpopular. Just look at the recent UK Election results.
The songs of The Claim have always felt firmly rooted in a deep sense of social justice and empathy with the disenfranchised, the forgotten, the ignored. In this they have always pulled inspiration from Folk traditions both lyrically and musically. These musical threads are most clearly visible in the two bookends of the set. Album opener ‘Johnny Kidd’s Right Hand Man’ is an instrumental that strums its way into our hearts whilst closing track ‘Under Canvas’ is two minutes of gorgeously delicate guitar picking atop which David Read sings a deceptively simple tale of love, betrayal and, erm, camping. When we tell you it could be a great lost track by Mick Head then you surely know how much we treasure it.
Between these two bookends of restraint however The Claim certainly stretch themselves and coalesce into a group confident in their capabilities. Quite simply, they sound tremendous. On the fabulous ’Just Too Far’ they reference Dave Edmunds’ ‘Queen Of Hearts’ and throw in a line about how “Doves put Pounding on the jukebox just for us”. Both great points of connectivity. On ‘The Haunted Pub’ they recollect The Kinks looking for redemption in the early ‘70s. Cliffe Hillbilly Boys, if you will. ‘Mrs Jones’ meanwhile is a gorgeous slow-motion waltz around a haunted dancehall, a copy of a Shena Mackay collection of short-stories stuffed in its back pocket.
Then there are cheeky suggestions to the summer of ‘Boomy Tella’’. That summer thirty years ago when we left the UK for two months and came back to find everyone wearing flares and the ‘baggy beat’ behind every damned song in the world. ‘Music/Pictures’ could be a Stone Roses b-side from when they wanted to be Velocity Girls (think ‘Mersey Paradise’) whilst ‘Hercules’ certainly cranks into gear on a funky drummer groove as if to say ‘we could have done this thirty years ago and joined the party but instead we chose to leave the love-in’.
‘Hercules’ is certainly the number we come back to most often on ‘The New Industrial Ballads’ for it is perhaps the songs that encapsulates what makes The Claim so special. We are firmly in Ken Loach social commentary territory here, with references to tower blocks, boarded-up shops, ‘Big Society’ and DWP ‘fit for work’ assessments. No surprise then to see the spectre of Loach’s ‘Cathy Come Home’ amongst the “run-down housing”, glaring at us with barely concealed contempt, despairing at how every generation never seems to learn from the errors of those who go before. Damned to repeat the same mistakes. For better or (more likely) for worse.
When Read concludes his depiction of contemporary England (and it is, increasingly, a depressingly isolated England) with the lines “Gather up all sympathies and mould them into Hercules” we are left to contemplate the meaning. Is the suggestion here that our collective empathy for others in our communities has somehow been transmuted into steel to make military aircraft (an inditement of increasingly militarised societies) or that they have been hijacked and coalesced into some mythical figure of Populist Power? Either way, it is not an especially optimistic conclusion.
It is fitting then that The Claim choose to marry this rather gloomy outlook with music that is affirmative and robust. The song grooves around its inner despair, spiralling in and out over the second half of its length in largely instrumental exuberance and collective hope in spite of it all.
Thirty years. Bent to it again but with heads held high.
Perhaps it is our Unpopular age, but we admit we find it ever more difficult these days to keep track of what bands particular musicians might happen to be in in at any given time. Jack Cooper is a case in point, for after his work with Beep Seals, Mazes, the (brilliant) Ultimate Paintings and a gorgeous solo record under his own moniker, he is now back with a new act named after Derek Jarman’s tremendous ‘Modern Nature’ book of journal writings from the years spent creating his Dungeness garden. Now Dungeness is a strange and beautiful place, one of those liminal spaces where juxtapositions of the natural and constructed worlds seem at once bizarre and entirely right and as such it feels entirely fitting that its peculiar landscape permeates the first album made by Cooper’s new group.
The songs on ‘How To Live’ may not form a narrative in the same way that those on Cooper’s 2017 solo set ‘Sandgrown’ do, but they nevertheless fit together in a looping post-modern structure that tell stories connected by notions of movement, isolation, reflection, dislocation and disconnect. In this sense ‘How To Live’ is a filmic record that values more abstract sensations of landscape over details; a record that may not be about any particular place but that is certainly about place and our trajectories around and through it. Refrains almost but not quite repeated; suggestions of musical themes that are real-not-real; connectivity created by field recordings ebbing and flowing in the mix: It’s an illusory, impressionistic and instinctual record. We hear words almost mumbled from the edge of the causeway and the end of the rainbow. Something about clicks repeating and footsteps, something else about Conquistadors. Stand atop the lighthouse and glimpse the textures spreading like a kaleidoscope vision beneath the stars.
In places (particularly on the tremendous ‘Footsteps’) Modern Nature remind us of the cool motorik calm of Appliance punctured deliciously by discordant bursts of saxophone (courtesy of Jeff Tobias from Brooklyn’s jazz/rock Sunwatchers). That driving rhythm of train tracks clacking past beneath us is to the fore again on ‘Nature’ (drums provided by Woods’ Aaron Nevue) this time punctuated by Will Young’s anxious guitar squalls sweeping in from the estuary. Elsewhere we float on a rippling surface of waterways, disturbed by dreams washing in on the evening tide. Here’s Lou Reed jumping a Spiritualized freight out to Coney Island, baby, and there’s a squadron of Talk Talk albums swooping in to hang out with the (Boards of) Canada geese on the lake. Big skies (The Kinks’, Kate Bush’s, maybe even Hurrah!’s) stretch into forever and we lay on the shingle suffused by shivering sunlight grasping at the gentle psychedelic magik of it all.
In ‘How To Live’ Modern Nature have made a strangely supple record into which we can escape from the fetid swamps of reality, its space one that provides a canvas onto which we can project our internal travels through subliminal landscapes, accompanied by treasured suggestions of shared reference and connectivity. And that’s a rare treasure in these times.
Strand of Oaks – ‘Forever Chords’ from ‘Eraserland’ LP
We are somewhat mistrustful of data here in the Unpopular universe. Our listening statistics for the past year for example show Strand Of Oaks as our most listened to artist by some margin, whilst the ‘all-time’ chart has Timothy Showalter just a few plays shy of The Go-Betweens. Now no disrespect to Showalter, but this is surely as clear an example of what Tara Westover describes as “data nearly always underrepresent(ing) reality” as is possible to obtain.
And yet. And yet. There is a reality that says these statistics are true. There is a truth in the point that ‘Eraserland’ is one of our four most played records of 2019. Some kind of honesty in the thought that whilst there is much in Strand Of Oaks that we shouldn’t really dig (the sound is often big; there are too many tattoos; there are beards and long hair) these things are mostly superficial, transitory, essentially meaningless. Our twenty year old selves would be shuddering at the thought and this, as we have often mentioned, is exactly as it ought to be.
So yes, we do love Strand Of Oaks and Timothy Showalter. We love him because he once made a nine-minute song about the pleasure of reading and we love him because he made a seven and half minute song about the power of Jason Molina’s records that takes our breath away and leaves us utterly ravaged every time we hear it.
We love the idea that, as with ‘JM’, ‘Radio Kids’ and ‘Goshen ’97’, Strand Of Oaks’ songs are often about the very processes of making and of listening to music. We love that they make these processes and the evocation of our emotional investments universal in spite of any specific reference points. No, Smashing Pumpkins and AC/DC mean less than nothing to us, but goodness, the underlying threads of connectivity are made along the same neural pathways and to paraphrase Josef K there are so many of these that lead to the heart…
‘Eraserland’ certainly leads to the heart and we could certainly have picked the title track for our Unpopular advent mix because we love how the song seems to suggest a policy of withdrawal from the world. Into one of books and films. Music. Nature, certainly. We love how it critiques it’s own contextual limitations with a line like “… they forgot about songs / Give us 10 Goshen’s and some sing-alongs”. We love how it suggests creation through erasure, like Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning drawing. Positive from Negative. Affirmation from rejection.
We could have picked album opener and single ‘Weird Ways’ for our Unpopular advent mix because it is certainly one of those ‘Goshen’s’ or sing-alongs and frankly there is nothing too much wrong with that in doses. Yet we also love it for the line that suggests “There are colors (sic) in the places you can’t find” as though the places we inhabit are devoid of it, are instead cloaked in monochrome. This in turn leads us down rabbit holes of photography and hey, can we tell you that when we hear Strand Of Oaks we sometimes see the photographs of Nathan Pearce, in particular his ‘Midwest Dirt’ work. Something in the almost desperate connectedness to a neglected landscape. Something heartfelt and pure, certainly.
We could have picked ‘Ruby’ for our Unpopular advent mix because Showalter has suggested it is the happiest song he has ever written and there is certainly a terrific rock’n’roll swagger in the song that suggests Springsteen dreaming of his Midwestern Cowboy Mythology.
It is, however, album closer ‘Forever Chords’ that we have chosen for our Unpopular advent mix (we strategically ignore the indulgence of ‘Cruel Fisherman’ that fills the final side of the double vinyl set). Another of his lengthier pieces (it clocks in at nine minutes and twenty one seconds), ‘Forever Chords’ manages the difficult task of making something that is expansive also simultaneously intimate. To draw back in our photography parallels again, it is the difference between an Ansel Adams landscape that unveils to us (merely?) the majesty and wonder of vastness and scale (and thus holds us at arms’ length) and a Minor White one that balances this with a humanity that draws us in.
‘Forever Chords’ draws us into Showalter’s world through a delicacy of instrumentation and composition that builds slowly and organically to thrumming waves of pressure and relief. In this there are clear connections back to the start of our advent series and those Spiritualized suggestions thrown out by Lawrence Collier and his Diamond Family Archive. ‘Forever Chords’ certainly inhabits a peculiarly similar landscape in that it stretches, loops, throws spectral shadows and expressionistic forms. It may be altogether more orthodoxly Rock in its crescendo, but we should not hold that against it.
It’s into that electric crescendo that Showalter sings “Chase the moments of bliss / They’ll outshine the bad / If you believe you can be loved / You’ll outlive your past”. Stripped from the context of the song we concede that those lyrics might seem trite. Yet as we know, context is everything, and held within the appropriately blissful threads of sound these lines instead transcend a potentially limiting vacuity and inhabit realms of sublime honesty. They offer us a balm that as disconnected, empty words they may not. The song and the luxurious completeness of its intimate communion is all.