London

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London’ – Frida Hyvönen
From Silence Is Wild (Secretly Canadian)

If Chris T-T’s Capital was one of the finest two albums of 2008, then Frida Hyvönen’s exquisite Silence Is Wild was easily the other.

I admit that I had not picked up on her before reading Everett’s effusive review in the December edition of Plan B. A double page spread. Captivating illustration. A full page of words with all the right reference points (Laura Nyro, ABBA, Herman Dune, Beat Happening, The Concretes) and ending with the words “Album of the year. No Question.”

It was enough to pique my interest, which in itself is unusual for music journalism these days. Perhaps I am just getting old, falling out of step or something. I don’t know. But no. Wait. Silence Is Wild. Oh yes.

So many delights. Everett has them all covered and does so with eloquence and charm. What’s to add? Well, maybe just that the ABBA angle could be pushed further; or The Concretes one, whichever. The Pop one, anyway. For there could be a temptation to cloak Silence Is Wild in that dreary ‘authentic’ garb. The one that’s all neutral tones, faux-rural infatuations and facial hair misadventures. Frida Hyvönen is too strangely glamorous for that though; too genuinely seductively eccentric in all the best ways. And thankfully incapable of being bearded. One hopes. Instead she reminds me of Cristina or Jayne Casey. Or, to get back to ABBA, that ever so slightly gloomy tinge of the coming night that permeated The Visitors. Know what I mean? And, hmm, to throw in another reference, what about Pearls Before Swine, to whose magical ‘The Jeweller’ I hear nods and winks in the melancholic ‘My Cousin’? Ashes to ashes. And if This Mortal Coil were to make a record in 2009, Frida Hyvönen would be a shoe-in for membership.

And then there is ‘London’.  The song that took grip of my December and whirled it around the dancefloor of my mind, coat-tails swishing and swooping as it went. So swiftly embedded as one of the great songs of the city, up there already with Caetano Veloso, Janet Kay and Barbara Ruskin. The phrasing, the words held just so, and ‘London’ itself expressed in that way that only Scandinavian blondes can do; the just so slightly over-balanced and stretched vowels. Such exquisite aches, the delight of the love that loves to love, love.

“The way you hate me is better than love / And I’m head over heels” Oh and I’m head over heels. I am. Oh, I am. How could I not be?

Song of the year. No question.

Album of the year. No question.

A Box To Hide In

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A Box To Hide In’ – Chris T-T
From Capital (Xtra Mile Recordings)

I still remember the first time I heard this. On a District Line train between Earls Court and Olympia, going to the BETT show. A mid January day away from school, up in the capital. A new Chris T-T record on the iPod. It had all sounded great up to this point. Perhaps a little more full-on than expected after the stripped back Nine Red Songs, but still, there’s nothing wrong with letting rip when the focus is right.

And then there was ‘A Box To Hide In’. It took my breath away. Brought a tear to my eye. Made me blink away the emotion. Had me standing outside Oylmpia, surrounded by crowds of teachers milling to and fro clutching handfuls of free pens, pressing my headphones to my ears, replaying the song, desperate to catch each pulse of energy again and again.

It still has the power to move me. It stills cuts me deep. Shivers ran up my spine when he played it in the Exeter Phoenix back in October, and with his fine band in full flight it sounded every bit as magnificent as I’d hoped it would.

I still don’t really understand why Chris is not a household name. Still don’t get why people are not giving him cover spreads in the more intelligent sections of the music press. Capital was far and away one of the best two albums of 2008. Certainly the best ‘rock’ record, for what it’s worth; stuffed full of the kind of intelligent, informed and articulate ‘protest’ songs that any young pretender should give their left (and/or right) arm for.

Perhaps as we lurch towards the realisation that the failure of multi-national, corporate capitalism is as seemingly inevitable as it is welcome, then Chris T-T’s blend of powerfully focused anger and deeply humanist empathy will grow as a rallying point of reference; a jumping off point for considering new ways forward that learn from our histories’ mistakes.

Or maybe everyone will continue as they were, throwing resources into propping up a terminally broken ideology and buying their heroes from X-Factor.

The world is there for the taking.

Tallahassee Bop

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Tallahassee Bop’ – Slow Down Tallahassee
From The Beautiful Light (Thee Sheffield Phonographic Corporation)

In some respects it’s a shame that ‘Tallahassee Bop’ became that song that I always came back to (the one that always got onto the mixes, the radio shows, the club night playlists) because so much of The Beautiful Light, with its infatuations of fifties bubblegum Pop refracted through an eighties indiepop fuzzbox, was very nearly as strong. As albums go, it was certainly one of the sweetest selection boxes around, with one of the most scrumptious slices of confection imaginable at its core.

 ‘Tallahassee Bop’ just grabbed me the first time I heard it. I couldn’t get past it. Had to keep hitting ‘repeat’. Had to keep shimmying around the room. I still do. And that moment, at around 2.05 in, when there is a tiny shuffle in time. A small pause. Handclaps. And then back into the groove. Well, see that moment? Those few seconds? They are the epitome of great Pop. All songs should have such moments. The fact that they follow that moment with the lines “my heart is a broken and black ’65 Cadillac full of thunder and gasoline” is merely a mind-blowingly brilliant bonus.

“I’ll see you in my dreams, making those eyes at me, I’ll go with you daddyo…”

Right on.

The Mystery of Marie Roget

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The Mystery of Marie Roget’ – Je Suis Animal
From Self Taught Magic From A Book (Angular)

Have you read The Mystery Of Marie Roget? Edgar Allan Poe. It was the sequel to The Murders On The Rue Morgue and is regarded as being the first detective fiction story to be based on a true case (and to its very great credit it didn’t involve an orang-utan). The thing is, time has not been particularly kind to Poe’s detective stories. They have ended up being historically important, but ultimately rather dull works. For sure, we should applaud them for setting in motion one of the finest genres of literature, but compared to what came later, they are pale and meagre feasts. Nevertheless, chapeau, to Norwegian quirk-pop troubadours Je Suis Animal for making such a charming and informed reference on this, the standout track from their standout debut set Self-Taught Magic From a Book. With half a foot in the roots of the dreaded land of twee, it would have been easy to cast Je Suis Animal as another bunch of fey Scandinavian dreamers. In truth they emerged dark and strange, casting long shadows in the icy forests, conjuring psychfolkpop dreams in the vein of the once rather ravishing Popinjays whistling down the wind with Pauline Murray And The Invisible Girls.

Sisters Are Forever

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Sisters Are Forever’ – Sexy Kids
From 7” (Slumberland)

I was never a huge fan of The Royal We. Didn’t quite get what all the fuss was about (The Vivian Girls are in the same boat at the moment). Thought they sounded just a little anaemic and overly considered and didn’t mourn their passing, it has to be said. As a result, the prospect of a return of sorts in the guise of Sexy Kids didn’t particularly fill me with thrills. But then I heard ‘Sisters Are Forever’ and realised that perhaps the phoenix (and god) like Slumberland label had worked its magic once again. Two minutes and fifty seconds of pulsing, gyrating, skinny-hipped delirium. And then some.

Come Saturday, Let’s Go!

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Come Saturday’ – The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
Let’s Go!’ – Summer Cats
From Searching For The Now volume 4 7” (Slumberland)

It’s been a superb year for Slumberland Records. The resurgent label has put out so many great records, including the excellent ‘Searching For The Now’ series of split 7” singles. Volume four is the real winner for me so far, with The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart and Summer Cats, from which the latest two entries in the Advent countdown come. I wrote about the single for issue to of my ‘Don’t Forget To Dance’ fanzine back in the summer. Here’s the text:

It’s the kind of record you want to throw on the record player on a Saturday night before heading out into the city. Pop a beer, turn the volume up to eleven. Heartbeats up, love, and all that malarkey. It’s the kind of record you can keep flipping over and over, each side catching you just so and demanding more of the same and then some. So that in the end you decide that, maybe, just maybe, the rest of the Saturday night is going to be an anti-climax and so, sod it, why not just open some more beers and keep playing records. Maybe bring some friends over. Or just immerse yourself in a solo night of sweet abandon. Perfect Pop sense.

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart sound fuzzy, scuzzy, messed up magic. I can see why Slumberland would want to release them for they are fired with the same sonic urgency as Black Tambourine, Velocity Girl and Rocketship with a hint of the shoegaze dreampop of Lorelei. I never bought into that shoegaze shtick, though I did like those Lorelei records, and really what I want to say is that The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart are in the spirit of Meat Whiplash and, yes, if you insist, the early Mary Chain. Or, come to think of it, My Bloody Valentine from long before they were Loveless. You know, when they were still in Ecstasy. Not that any of that matters in the slightest of course. I just throw those kind of references in to show you how old I am. Or how hip I am. Ha ha.

But My Bloody Valentine. I do not really understand the infatuation with them coming back and playing an hour of noise. I like those records well enough, but for me it was a case of diminishing returns from Ecstasy onwards. I mean, I loved those later records but for me Ecstasy is the one. For so many reasons. The songs are great. The sleeve even better. Apart from the placement of the title. They should have left that off. But that speckled background. Lovely. Twenty one years old. I bet that’s even older than some of the members of The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart. Scary.

And hey, Summer Cats sound even better. I mean, they do until you flip the record back and hear The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart again and you falter, and wonder, and… heck, with a see-saw of two such great songs, who really cares? But Summer Cats. A little less of the fuzz and buzzsaw and a little more of the melodic thrash. Yum. Mike mentions Stereolab in his own description of the record, and as I mentioned earlier, he should know about that. I hear it too. The early ‘lab oscillating keyboard groove, drenched in summershining popnoise.

I Give You Two Seconds To Entertain Me

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I Give You Two Seconds To Entertain Me’ – Northern Portrait
From the Napoleon Sweetheart EP (Matinee)

There were some fine releases on the Matinee label this year, but far and away my favourite was this slice of soaring guitar driven Pop by Denmark’s Northern Portrait. Think the sound of Gene, Bradford, The Railway Children, Faith Brothers and, yes, The Smiths at their giddiest peak (or some other more contemporary group if you’re a younger person than I). Like ‘The Good Old Days’ this was one of the songs guaranteed this year to have me leaping like a loon; my heart carousing and crashing with heady abandon.

My only reservation would be that lyrically it leaves me wanting much more; it feels too typically like a hipster early twenty something earnestly decrying what he sees as the commercial corruption of an object of desire. I can imagine that, if I were a woman, I’d be really rather offended by some of the lines, and the inference that one cannot be both physically desirable and ‘true and genuine’ at the same time. And what’s ‘genuine’ anyway? As for the idea of ‘selling out’…  oh, don’t get me started…

But maybe I’m being picky. Maybe if I was a young thing I wouldn’t care. Maybe people don’t really care about words anyway (I remember Malcolm Eden saying that a lot of McCarthy fans didn’t care for the words, for example, which shocked me to the core at the time).

As a sonic pleasure, it’s a treasure. Maybe that’s all that matters.

Retiro Park

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'Retiro Park' – The Clientele
From That Night A Forest Grew EP (Acuarela)

There are some groups whose continued genius you grow to rely on making an appearance every now and then to soothe your troubled soul. A record appears to no great fanfare. You smile to yourself, as though you feel yourself to be part of a glorious family of enlightened souls. You settle into the sound as you might into a well-worn armchair; surround yourself with a splendid, spidery web of familiarity. It feels good.

I well remember Kevin often writing that there was a new Autechre record and that it sounded like the other Autechre records, and that that was a great thing. I’ve long felt the same about The Clientele. Formula as a means of driving progress. The interest is in the subtle difference, not in obvious leaps of direction change. The Clientele have always implicitly understood this. Have always demonstrated their grasp of the elemental quality of Pop in the artefacts they have made. Have always shown an uncanny knack for creating something startling from the space where the feather-light texture of gossamer guitars meets electric urgency. The Clientele have always managed to make a spectral, baroque inflected psychedelia without sounding fey or willfully obtuse. It’s a difficult trick to pull off.

Their That Night A Forest Grew EP for Acuarela was as classic an example of all of this as you would expect. Four more Clientele recordings to add to the box of treasures; a box already packed so full of sparkling gems, each glittering with their own particular facets, reflecting light through each other and casting always new kaleidoscopic patterns on the sky. Familiar yet new. New, yet familiar.

God save the Clientele, indeed.

Oh What A Life

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'Oh What A Life' – Play People
From Oh What A Life single (This Almighty Pop)

2008 was a bit of a year for fanzine resurgence and revivalists. For as well as Kevin’s ‘Yr Heart Out, and my own ‘Don’t Forget To Dance’, there was the return of Stephen Maughan and his ‘This Almighty Pop’ imprint. Stephen too took the step into the land of labels this year, and the first release on his CDR label was this nugget of ‘80s electropop inflected magic by Play People.

There’s something sumptuously synthetic about ‘Oh What A Life’ – a bit of Buggles, a sliver of St Etienne, a whiff of White Town. And of course a hefty nod to Strawberry Switchblade’s ‘Since Yesterday’, which is more than fitting, given the song is about long lost love affairs and running scared across the space of twenty odd years. It was always going to sucker me too, with those lines about ’83 (or ’84). Something about the core of one’s own Pop awakenings, or the root of the thrill of the new that sits in all of us; in all of us different, but with the same threads of emotion, perhaps. Which is what binds us; is what makes these songs we love so special.