Unpopular Advent 2014 – Day 24: Withered Hand – ‘New Gods’

We should never dwell on unpleasant thoughts or memories, but I have to admit that I shall not be sad to see the back of 2014. Everyone deals with their own difficulties and demons in their own way and alongside the importance of special people I have to admit that music is often the transformative medium through which I am able to escape and find solace. The specific music that manages to perform this miracle shifts with the moods and the times of course, but there is something magical in the manner in which circumstance and chance can appear to momentarily place things in just the perfect place and time. There was something of this alchemical quality in Withered Hand’s ‘New Gods’ album, and whilst the reasons for choosing it as my favourite record of 2014 are entirely, deeply personal, I will suggest that although it crossed my path at exactly the right moment, it would never have burrowed so deeply into my heart had it not also been so spectacularly, timelessly brilliant.
I have stated before that I don’t really believe in coincidence and there is surely none in the fact that two of my very favourite records of the year were released via the Furtuna Pop and Slumberland axis. I may however be tempted to accept a degree of coincidence in that fact that both Allo Darlin’ and Withered Hand originally left me cold. In hindsight this is unfathomable, but I am sure there were good reasons. Perhaps in Withered Hands’ case it was an aversion to a rootsy Scottishness, and whilst I would still admit to a mistrust of such earthy faux-authenticity, in reality there was little if any of that in the grooves of ‘New Gods’. Instead there was, I think, a glorious outsider appreciation of a mythic Americana at work that was at once wholly personal and instantly universal (in hindsight this appears to be a recurring theme in many of my favourite records of the year).
It seemed to me that in ’New Gods’ we glimpsed the ghosts of Gene Clark and Gram Parsons sharing a bourbon in an LA Airport lounge whilst daydreaming of peat fires and Sauchiehall Street. Or perhaps it was an echo of James Hackett sidling up to Van Dyke Parks and suggesting they make a record about airplane rides, fading photographs and missing heartbeats. Perhaps it was none of that.
Perhaps instead it was just the sound of ‘Between True Love And Ruin’ on the car stereo in summer afternoons and feeling simultaneously like the world could both crack wide open at any moment and that nothing could possibly dent it. Perhaps it was the euphoric pleasure of listening to the skirling swish of ‘King of Hollywood’ and wanting to swing passing strangers over your shoulder in some kind of wild dervish dance. Perhaps it was the joyful delight of hearing a song called ‘Black Tambourine’ that had the insanely good taste to have Pam Berry on backing vocals (and of course of that record being released on Slumberland!). Perhaps it was the autumnal shiver of the album’s title track whispering in the mist of an October morning. Perhaps it was the utter perfection of every moment of ‘Fall Apart’: from the lines about dancing by the light of every dead star to the layered harmonies in the chorus and those entreaties to ‘come on, come on’ it was perfect a Pop jewel as one could imagine.
In the end though, ‘New Gods’ has ended up as my most treasured record of 2014 simply because it, more than any other, spoke to me about my life and my feelings in a way that no other quite managed, both lyrically and musically. And although I understand that years are simply constructs that allow us to delineate the passing of time, I’m looking forward to 2015 simply because it will not be 2014. I’m rather hoping too that there will be more Withered Hand records to help us all through.

Withered Hand – ‘New Gods' (on Slumberland or Fortuna Pop)


Unpopular Advent 2014 – Day 23: Allo Darlin’ – ‘We Come From The Same Place’

It seems inexplicable now that in 2010 I was singularly unimpressed with the debut album by Allo Darlin’, although my 2010 advent entry appears to capture both that initial ambivalence and the subsequent conversion in fairly convincing fashion. 2012’s ‘Europe’ set managed to convince me just that little bit more, with it’s rather more polished and filled out sound helping move the group out of some kind of hellish twee indie ghetto I had imagined them inhabiting previously. Jumping forward another two years and this year’s ‘We Come From The Same Place’ saw Allo Darlin’ finally flourish into the kind of group I could willingly place on the top shelf of contemporary Pop groups.
This is not to say that Elizabeth Morris has not written some exquisite songs in the past. She most certainly has. And it’s not to say that the sound of cagey uncertainty and vulnerability is not appealing (it most certainly can be). It’s just to say that only on ‘We Come From The Same Place’ did it really sound as though Allo Darlin’ were a group in full control, blending strength and fragility in a marvellously artful manner.
Put simply, there were simply more gloriously memorable melodies and more memorably glorious lines in ‘We Come From The Same Place’ than in any previous Allo Darlin’ set. There was the brittle melancholy of ‘Angela’ with it’s spectral guitar line conjuring memories of Deebank and Blueboy set alongside those heartbreaking and warming words about how "the hardest thing we ever have to learn / Is when those we love don’t love us in return”. There was the rampaging love/hate duel of ‘Half Heart Necklace’ and that killer opening line of “the lights of this town spell H-E-L-L” and surely we’ve all been there and felt that? And was that whole half-heart necklace thing a reference to 'Twin Peaks' or was that just me projecting? Then what about that marvellous line about lips being sweet from the Juicy Fruit in the peerless ‘Crickets In The Rain’, outdone only by the one about reading Joan Didion in the dark. Honestly, ‘Crickets In The Rain’ was just such a wonderful Pop moment and hey, did you want to shed a wee tear like me when Elizabeth sang that line about how loving someone was like how "everything you had ever lost had come back” (inspired in itself by a line in a poem by Nayyirah Waheed)? Or what about coffee cups leavening rings on your A-Z in ‘History Lessons’, or those crystalline guitar strings of fairly lights in the title track and that line about just trying to make it through another Tuesday? And I know we’ve all been there.
Finally, how about ‘Kings And Queens’ with it’s transformative punch and it’s exquisite grasp of how it feels to be young and full of fire and passion? “They can call us what they want” sang Elizabeth before adding “but we know that we are the kings and queens of love” in so doing capturing the essence of awkward, proud and damaged outsiders everywhere. All of which means that ultimately ‘We Come From The Same Place’ was all about exactly what it’s title suggested: a warming fire about which to huddle; a beacon for those once young and foolish, now grown up but still muddling through, making it up as we go.
Allo Darlin’ – ‘We Come From The Same Place' (Fortuna Pop or Slumberland)

Unpopular Advent 2014 – Day 22: The Luxembourg Signal – ‘The Luxembourg Signal’

Was there a more handsome record this year than the eponymous debut set by The Luxembourg Signal? With its icicle blue translucent vinyl and its classy, classic Saville-esque sleeve this was a record that reminded me of the magic of the physical artefact. The fact that the vinyl sold out within a breath of its release tells you that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. It helped of course that the music on the grooves sounded every bit as handsome.
We’d been tipped to the probability of a magical album early in the year by the brilliance of lead single ‘Distant Drive’. Some say it was the finest single of the year and they may well be right in that, for with its sparkling guitar lines and motorik rhythm it was one of those records that sounds exactly as its title suggests it ought. Now having spent the majority of life being unable to drive I suspect I have never truly understood the meaning of ‘driving music’. Yet having been behind the wheel for only eight months I would instantly aver that The Luxembourg Signal make a sound that is more custom built for driving (or for travelling in general) than anything much else I can think of. Certainly on an Autumnal afternoon driving the lanes of Haldon forest it was perfection itself.
That notion of travelling was also captured perfectly in the video for the gorgeous ‘We Go On’, with its clips of train, plane, car and bus trips including the truly magical Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway and the wind turbines from the San Gorgiono pass on the way from LA to Palm Springs. With strong personal memories of both places so firmly rooted in my heart it was perhaps inevitable that I would fall in love with both the song and the film. Perhaps too it was inevitable that the feeling of distance and movement permeated the record so deeply, given that the recording of the album was essentially a transatlantic juggling act. And fitting too that the idea of sun kissed desert space meeting dense urban conurbation melded so neatly. 
Nowhere was the darkness of the combination better illustrated than on album opener ‘Dying Star’. With it’s Spirea X groove and ‘For Keeps’ space rock guitars, it sounded spectacular, like an enormous collision of matter and anti-matter, which is to say exactly as it ought. One could imagine it as an extended, trippy remix spanning an entire side in a Loop-like or ‘Higher Than The Orb’-like trance. It really was that fine. And yet, and yet, to have done so on this record would be to have missed the point and to that we must give The Luxembourg Signal credit for taking care to reign in the impulse to stretch too far. For it was that precise contrast between the darkness and the light (it is followed on the album by ‘Distant Drive’); the collision between apparently contrasting yet subtly similar moods that made the album such a treasure.
The Luxembourg Signal – 'The Luxembourg Signal' (from Shelflife Records)

Unpopular Advent 2014 – Day 21: The Orchids – ‘Beatitude #9’

It is surely a reflection on my age and the accelerated speeding of time when I say it feels like only yesterday that I was excited not only to be writing sleeve notes for reissues of the three albums that The Orchids recorded for Sarah records, but also at the news that the group had reformed and were set to play, write and record again. To realise that in reality a decade has passed is frankly terrifying.
In that decade however I am delighted to say that The Orchids have released another three albums, the most recent of which was this years’ typically gorgeous ‘Beatitude #9’ for the Spanish Acuarela imprint. Infused with their trademark supple groove, on ‘Beatitude #9’ The Orchids again showed a remarkable ability to make deceptively soft, bittersweet records brimful of emotion and life. Listened to outside of the inescapable context of Sarah Records, one could certainly suggest that The Orchids always had the necessary skills to escape the Indie ghetto. Certainly ‘Beatitude #9’ sounded in places much more likely to appeal to fans of smooth, seductive, soulful dance music than to devotees of brittle, watered-down twee self-pity. But then in reality there were plenty of artists on the original Sarah roster who didn't fit that sterotype, and if the ‘From Hello To Goodbye’ exhibition (including the premiere of the ‘My Secret World’ film) in Bristol helped place some of the mediated myths within context then The Orchids’ live performance was a certainly a splendid highlight of a wonderful event.
‘Beatitude #9’ was peppered with gorgeous moments, including a lovely nod to the Lazy Perfection of their past with Pauline Hynds joining on the excellent ‘Good Words (Are Never Enough)’. Elsewhere the album was equally splendid, and from the shimmering, blissful ’Something’s Going On' though the neat sunburst pop shuffle of ‘The Coolest Thing’ to the mournful, Strands-like beauty of the album closing ‘We Made A Mess’, ‘Beatitude #9’ barely skipped a beat. Like a good single Malt whisky, ‘Beatitude #9’ proved to be an album to take your time over, an album to give oneself over to and to luxuriate in. 
The Orchids – 'Beatitude #9' (CD on Amazon)

Unpopular Advent 2014 – Day 20: The Wolfhounds – ‘Middle Aged Freaks’

One of the most pointless exercises is to draw up lists of ‘all time favourite’ anythings. Such things necessarily drift with the tides of our lives, and this is what makes them so elusive. If pressed however I would admit that The Wolfhounds would be on such a list of musical artists more often that not. The singles and albums they recorded, from the piercing ‘Cut The Cake’ in 1986 to the glowering ‘Attitude’ of 1990 were universally magnificent and criminally ignored and underrated. 
Their return in 2005 was a great delight, and their set at the 2006 ‘Still Doing It For Fun’ nights at the ICA remains burnt on my retinas as a spectacular explosion of breathtaking poise and noise. There have been singular releases in the intervening years since then of course, and it was these that formed the backbone of their first album in 24 years. ‘Middle Aged Freaks’ bristled with the spiky intelligence of The Wolfhounds' previous incarnation and sounded in no way like a group settling happily into their armchairs. Instead there was a sense of a group who had matured, yes, but who remained infuriated by the society in which they found themselves. As unsettled and uncomfortable in Cameron’s UK as they had been in Thatcher’s, The Wolfhounds were determined not to be quiet about it. Like Seaford Mods (in fact I think it was The Wolfhounds’ Dave Callahan* who first tipped me to Seaford Mods back in April 2013) or Flies On You, The Wolfhounds had the air of a literate irritant in the side of mainstream culture – not that mainstream culture noticed, or cared.
Me, I cared a great deal. From the simultaneously euphoric and splenetic ‘Cheer Up’ (itself a feature in last year’s advent series) through the sky scraping ‘Anthem’ and the gloriously sparse ’The Slide’ to the hypnotic, motorik ’The Ten Commandments of Public Life’, ‘Middle Aged Freaks’ sounded both like the return of a prodigal son and the re-establishment of an alternative order into the universe. Stunning.
The Wolfhounds – 'Middle Aged Freaks' (Bandcamp)
*On a side note, Dave Callahan’s parallel life as a twitcher was spotlit beautifully in his terrific 'A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects’ book.

Unpopular Advent 2014 – Day 19: The Hit Parade – ‘Cornish Pop Songs’

Was there ever a more perfect summer Pop record than The Hit Parade’s ‘Cornish Pop Songs’? Not in 2014 there wasn’t. Those that know know that Julian Henry has been crafting jewels of Pop perfection since time immemorial (or at least since the mid 1980s which is essentially the same thing) and ‘Cornish Pop Songs’ was the latest in a stream of perfectly poised records. If it had been an album of songs written about anywhere in the world then I’m certain I would have loved it, but I will be honest and admit that it was in no small part the context of the songs that meant that, frankly ‘Cornish Pop Songs' was a record that could hardly have failed to wrap me around its little finger and squeeze my heart until it ached.
There is something magical about the end of the world (or at least the end of England) that really does grab a hold of your soul. Something in the juxtapositions of the bleak, wild moors and seascapes and the cosy closeness of copses and the huddled-togetherness of the coastal villages. Something in the mystical histories and the contrariness. Something in the mizzle cloaked cliffs and the sun bleached sands. Magical, either way.
So did you need to have at least a minimal knowledge of the geographical context to adore ‘Cornish Pop Songs’? Of course not. For whilst little bits of local colour helped move things along (Mr Stevenson would be the Newlyn fish merchant for example, whilst the garage in Drift would be on the A30 out of Penzance – blink and you’ll miss it), these were fragments of personal geographic reference that rooted the songs in context, thereby allowing them to flower as blooms of universal familiarity. Julian Henry’s songs were a glorious collision between melancholic memorabilia and blissful euphoria. ‘Cornish Pop Songs’ then was both a paean to a specific, magical landscape and a celebration of the simple, essential ingredients of great Pop. Like sonic representations of Peter Benson novels, these songs were OF Cornwall but ABOUT love, loss and distance (both physical and through time). It was as close to perfect a Pop record as I heard in a long time.
The Hit Parade – 'Cornish Pop Songs' (CD on Amazon)


Unpopular Advent 2014 – Day 18: Strand of Oaks – ‘Heal’

There are moments in one’s life when one feels acutely aware of one’s age, or at the very least of the ageing process. These moments are often wrapped up around conversations with younger generations where the lack of shared cultural reference points becomes acutely apparent. The same goes for when one is younger of course – when one feels that gaping void between where you are and where your elders seem to be, cloaked in mythic memorabilia, feigning appreciation when all one really feels is the dread of reaching that place oneself. There was something of this in Strand Of Oaks’ ‘Heal’, or at least there was for me as a listener.
Album opener ‘Goshen’ 97’ was a remarkable song, full of the ecstatic delight of being young and having the spotlight of music’s possibilities shone into one’s eyes; blinded by the white light of magic. For me of course the reference points were all wrong – too much long hair, beards, Smashing Pumpkins and Noisy Rock, but goodness the sound was sensational, not least thanks to J Mascis’ guitar providing such a glorious Pop cacophony in the same way as it once did on Buffalo Tom’s ‘Impossible’. And here’s the point I guess: the spirit transcended the references, closed the gaps of individual context and created a glow of supreme ecstasy. The rub being that it was precisely the specificity of references (singing Pumpkins in the mirror, dad’s old tape machine, smoking menthols) that allowed that transcendence to occur. Without those things songs run the risk of being bland generalities without conviction. It’s a tough juggling act, but ‘Goshen ’97’ certainly accomplished it with aplomb.
Elsewhere on ‘Heal’ there was a similar sense of conviction and an artfully composed illusion of authenticity (this is a mighty compliment, I should add, for I do not believe in the myth of ‘authenticity’ in mass mediated art forms). The emotionally draining ‘JM’ was another potent hymn to the power of music; this time a tense struggle between the memory of youthful surrender to the seductive dark sides of raging teen rebellion and the growing adult awareness of where that might ultimately lead. It’s that aforementioned gaping void that ‘JM’ inhabits, throwing out lines of hope and despair in equal measure.  That void was there on ‘Shut In’ too: a song that reminded me of the elegiac qualities of Big Country at their finest (there were strong echoes of their ‘Restless Natives’ soundtrack) and indeed that 1980s feel was prevalent in a lot of ‘Heal’, where synths came on like Simple Minds in their ‘Sons and Fascination’ pomp, whilst on occasion you could almost hear the ghost of 'The Joshua Tree’ haunting the corridors of a run-down Mid Western town, kicking through the mud with Springsteen.
There are those who will tell you that those kinds of 1980’s references were best exemplified by the War On Drugs set from this year, and whilst there is something in that, for me ‘Heal’ played the finer hand. Compared to ‘Lost In The Dream’, ‘Heal’ sounded equally assured yet appealingly less sure of itself. It sounded more scuffed around the edges and with a soul more scoured and gouged. I loved it.
Strand of Oaks – 'Heal' (CD on Amazon)