Unpopular advent 2018 – Day 24

The Goon Sax – We’re Not Talking

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.

Breathe.

Unpopular advent 2018 – Day 23

The Left Outsides – All That Remains

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.

Unpopular advent 2018 – Day 22

Springsteen on Broadway

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.

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 21

Flo & Spicey – Flo & Spicey’s Tea Set

‘Flo & Spicey’s Tea Set’ would in all likelihood have completely passed me by if it had not been for a nodded wink from Monorail Records up there in Glasgow Town (my spiritual home from home perhaps, maybe, still, and at this point can I just leap off on another tangent and tell you I feel guilty about not also including Alpaca Sports’ lovely ‘From Paris With Love’ album in this advent series not least for their gorgeous ‘Feel Like Going Home’ song that captures something of the strange pull of West of Scotland that I Hate/Love and really Alpaca Sports could in some sense be as far from Flo & Spicey as you could get whilst still existing in the same universe).

Monorail made reference to Broadcast in their (obviously very effective) sales pitch, and there is certainly something of a shared thread of interest in psychedelic folk mythology filtering through this ‘Tea Set’. Mostly though it puts me in mind of the very wonderful Lispector records which themselves could conjure notions of Marine Girls with toy keyboards instead of guitars or Young Marble Giants as Gothic romantics hiding in darkened basements sticking the wings torn from flies onto Barbie bodies. Or, to put it another way, ‘Flo & Spicey’s Tea Set’ could certainly be some of the music referenced in David Keenen’s part fact/part fiction ‘This Is Memorial Device’ novel. It certainly treads the lines of experimental sound collages where you can see/hear the torn edges and masking tape, and that is to be celebrated of course.

If I can throw something else in the mix here too (and I can, so I will) it is to Jim Beattie’s Adventures In Stereo. Beattie appears cruelly to have been all but erased from the Primal Scream narrative (a throwaway line about how Gillespie formed the group with Beattie is the sole reference in that previously mentioned BBC documentary) and it surprises me too how seldom his Adventures In Stereo records (particularly the first LP) are mentioned these days. Certainly the rough-cut approach of musical collage (look! You can see the edges! Aren’t the edges just wonderful?!) is stage centre in Adventures In Stereo and it is the same on ‘Flo & Spicey’s Tea Set’.

The extended motorik centre piece of ‘Tea Suite’ is a mesmerising fourteen minutes of repetition, repetition, repetition in a sequence of movements that are each distinct yet distinctly connected as a whole. As a Suite it certainly underpins the entire album and is a track that I find myself wanting to hear again and again. However it is on their shorter cuts that Flo & Spicey really connect, in particular with my love of Pop/Dada collage, and all of their numbers are by turns like a Hamilton, Höch or Hausmann in musical form. Best of all is ‘Sucking In The Sun’ which starts with a tram bell invite to a world of sunshine and warmth, from whence it proceeds to a place of sun-bleached synth washes and bleeps of ice cream dropped on toasted promenades. It is three minutes and ten seconds of Sunshine Psychedelia beamed in from a past or a future where technology is still or is again sketchy and unreliable. ‘Sucking In The Sun’ is Suicide and The United States Of America vacationing in the Stockholm archipelago, taking scalpels to Abba tapes and sticking them back together with safety pins. And if you can think of a finer recommendation of a place to visit then I for one certainly want to hear of it.

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 20

Primal Scream – Give Out But Don’t Give Up (The Memphis Sessions)

Let’s get this straight from the start: When ‘Give Out But Don’t Give Up’ came out twenty five years ago I hated almost everything about it. Sure, the Glam Slade Stomp Bubblegum Punk of ‘Rocks’ was hilarious, dumb and hence the perfect Pop single. ‘Jailbirds’ followed it on a similar level of Let’s Pretend To Be The Rolling Stones intensity but somehow Not Just Quite and from thereon it all seemed to nose-dive rapidly into sludgy unlistenable nonsense. In 2018 I gave my clearly barely touched vinyl a spin just to check I wasn’t unfairly projecting twisted memories onto it (after all, at the time I would have been listening to much more hip hop, drum’n’bass, electronic etc). I wasn’t. Indeed, if anything, it sounded even more unpleasant and mired in a time thankfully long since passed. Only the aforementioned ‘Rocks’ and the forgotten print of the William Eggleston cover photograph gave me any delight at all.

Of course the reason for this detour into the murky past was all down to the release of the Original Memphis Sessions. The story is well documented in the record’s lavish liner notes, accompanying facsimile materials and in the BBC4 documentary about the whole process. Now I admit that I found the film in equal parts hilarious, depressing and incredibly (and surprisingly, I admit) touching. Hilarious and depressing in the sense of 50-something men still apparently under the illusion that adding the word ‘fuck’ or ‘fucking’ as punctuation between every other word is essential to illustrate their authenticity as Rock’n’Roll Outlaws and/or Working Class Heroes (and incidentally, as someone who works on a daily basis with children and parents from so-called Disadvantaged and Working Class backgrounds, I am fully cognisant of the dangers of criticising/modifying/judging the language of any given Class’ cultural context). Hilarious and depressing too how the story of the early Primal Scream leapt straight from Council House flats in Glasgow to the one song on their second LP that became ‘Loaded’. Honestly, I get why Gillespie et al want to expunge the ‘All Fall Down’, ‘Imperial’ and ‘Ivy Ivy Ivy’ phases from their narrative, but as someone only half-jokingly pointed out when watching the film, “they’ve missed out the best bit!”.

All that said, I admit I have been taken aback by just how good the Original Memphis Recordings set sounds in 2018. In all honesty it’s many years since I cared about Primal Scream and it was partly a vague disappointment on hearing Spiritualized’s occasionally very fine but often mediocre ‘And Nothing Hurt’ set that I decided to pick up on The Memphis Sessions. If the Spiritualized record gives off hints and suggestions of Southern Rock, Soul and Jazz (and it does) then the frustration for me is that it does so in a very knowing, cold manner. It feels like an exercise in assembling signifiers of Taste, which is fine up to a point but you know it can be very easy to become bored by that point. In contrast the Original Memphis Sessions does sound like a record immersed in its roots. You should know by now how much I mistrust the idea of authenticity in Rock or Pop music, but I am not sure I want to avoid using it here.

A younger Gillespie mutters something in the documentary film about Soul music and amongst the extended (and clearly drug-addled) monologue he is essentially correct. Soul isn’t about the colour of skin, it’s about something ineffable, undefinable. Maybe this is why he struggles to put it into words. Maybe it’s captured in what Tom O’Dowd says about it all being very simple, and maybe that’s all there is to it. It’s so simple that it’s impossible to explain. You can hear it and you can feel it (so why can’t you touch it?).

Some do not hear it in Primal Scream and therefore will not hear it in the Original Memphis Sessions. That is fine, even if they are wrong. For in these grooves I hear songs that soar, songs that dive to the depths of darkness, songs that sooth the pain and songs that open the wounds.

I admit that I am frankly startled by just how good these recordings sound to me, now, in 2018. Unlike the ‘originally’ released version of ‘Give Out’, which sounds completely and utterly Of It’s Time and hence almost entirely unlistenable now, the Memphis Sessions sound timeless, soaked in a magic that is very much rooted in the context of the players who made it and in the place it was made.

At the end of the documentary Gillespie opens up and admits he doesn’t think he will ever make anything as great as this record again. You can’t help but laugh along with him in agreement.

Unpopular advent 2018 – Day 19

Malcolm Middleton – Bananas

‘Love Is A Momentary Lapse In Self Loathing’ might just be the most perfect Malcolm Middleton song title (at least until the next most perfect Malcolm Middleton song title comes along) for it is one that essentially captures the themes of pretty much all his work (that same one song he’s been writing all his life, as he points out on the wonderful album opener ‘Gut Feeling’). For whilst there is light and tenderness on many of Middleton’s records it is inevitably counterpointed by great swathes of bleakness washing through the songs like sea fog advancing imperiously from the North Sea. Yet it is to Middleton’s credit (though I suspect from listening to ‘Bananas’ that he’d not be particularly open to accepting that credit) that he manages to cloak this mainly pessimistic worldview within a music that plays around with glorious Pop hooks that often feel at odds with the lyrical content. Middleton deploys these hooks with care though, and in the mostly lengthy songs on ‘Bananas’ these barbs of delicious melody often emerge as sequences punctuating structures that are diverse yet wholly cohesive. Indeed many of the songs on ‘Bananas’ feel like miniature suites, each with distinct movements, inevitably making the eight tracks feel like many more.

There is too a gallows humour about many of Middleton’s songs and this is certainly present in spades on ‘Love Is…’. There is also something of the potty mouth to Middleton’s songs, but whilst his collaboration with David Shrigley just felt irritating and irrelevant (perhaps this was the point, in which case job done but I just don’t want to listen to it thanks all the same) the more measured use of swearing on ‘Bananas’ feels altogether more human and real. “Fuck off with your happiness” Middleton sings on ‘Love Is…’ and a million misanthropes sing along. Well, maybe not a million but a few, certainly, and since when did we miss an opportunity to indulge in some alliteration when writing about Pop? That would be akin to never repeating yourself.

As he’s/we’ve noted Middleton certainly repeats himself, except that musically he does enjoy exploring different avenues, and after the more electronic backings to the ‘Summer of ’13′ collection ‘Bananas’ employs a greater wealth of instrumentation. There has often been lovely piano work in Middleton’s recordings and it is to the fore on much of ‘Bananas’. At times it puts me in mind of Elton John performing with Lenny Bruce on Blue Night and there is nothing wrong with that after all. There is more orchestration on ‘Bananas’ too and this works in tandem with the aforementioned ‘mini-suite’ structure of many of the songs, notably on the wonderful eight minute ‘Buzz Lightyear Helmet’. “How the fuck am I going to make a Buzz Lightyear helmet from this cardboard box and a roll of tape?” wonders Middleton in a song where he positions mental health in the awkward junction between the desire for isolation and the weight of responsibility. It’s another song of almost manic oscillations between light and shade and even as we revel in the closing chorus of “we’re gonna have fun, fun, fun on the east coast” we are already setting up for a half minute of plaintive piano receding out into that North Sea fog. ‘Man Up, Man Down’ meanwhile is the number where the electronic echoes of ‘Summer of ’13’ come back most obviously, driving the song through its central element with an almost motorik insistence. There is a moment here where Middleton talks about checking his tie in a mirror and “wondering ‘what would Ian say’” and is it just me or this is an Ian Curtis reference? I mean, there are lots of men called Ian, but when Middleton follows this not long after with the repeated “isolation” then it does all rather feel like a nod and a wink.

I’m not sure if there is also a nod and a wry wink to Joy Division in ‘Love Is…’ but you could certainly make the connection and it would fit sweetly next to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ on a mix of love songs that dwell on the shadows cast by that particular emotion. It’s in those shadows that Middleton scratches out his art, making terrific mementoes such as ‘Bananas’. It’s in the records, in the songs, in the shadows where Middleton makes sense of (his) existence and like all artists we certainly feel the question of where the individual ends and the artist begins. The individual informs the art and the feedback loop of the art informs the individual. Middleton acknowledges this in Love Is… as he escapes to “hide in a song”, cloaking the ego in the artifice of creation.

Fuck off with your happiness indeed.

Unpopular advent 2018 – Day 18

Oskar’s Drum – Degenerate Art

Oskar’s Drum appeared in the 2016 Unpopular advent with a track from their ‘A Cathedral Of Hands’ set but this was the year I was undertaking my 50/50 project and so I did not have space or time to write anything about each of my choices. If I had done it is certain that I would have been mentioning how great it was to hear again the voice of Patrick Fitzgerald; a voice I have treasured ever since hearing Kitchens Of Distinction all those years ago (thirty, to be exact, for I cannot quite claim to have had such a finger on the pulse as to have heard their ‘Last Gasp Death Shuffle’ single in 1987).

In truth of course I must admit that, just as with Buffalo Tom, there was a period where I stupidly ignored Kitchens of Distinction. It seems unfathomable looking back now, but that idiotic younger me disclaimed an interest in the group just after Quick As Rainbows and it was not until some time later that I properly listened to ‘Strange Free World’, ‘Death of Cool’ or ‘Cowboys and Aliens’. Indeed it might have been as recently/far back (delete according to particular mood) as 2003’s ‘Capsule’ compilation that caused me to reappraise that particular period in my life and find it desperately wanting, certainly as far as guitar rock/pop records were concerned.

So yes, it has been a marvellous pleasure to have unearthed those earlier records and in more recent times to enjoy Fitzgerald’s work as Stephen Hero and now in collaboration with Yves Altana as Oskar’s Drum (not forgetting 2013 ‘comeback’ Kitchens of Distinction album ‘Folly’). Now I do not know much about Yves Altana but I notice that he has made records with Mark Burgess in the past and there is certainly something of The Chameleons’ epic swoop to Oskar’s Drum, as there was indeed to Kitchens of Distinction. That ill-informed idiotic younger me would often disclaim grandeur in music and art, conflating it as often as not with excess (and all the vile ‘80s consumerist connotations that involved). What I did not see, and which is clearer to me now, is that in terms of art or music this sense of grandeur can often be something which is an illusion of scale, or at least of a scale and luxury that is underpinned by pretence. That notion of the theatrical again. And didn’t we say there was something of the operatic about Folly? Well quite.

‘Degenerate Art’ is certainly theatrical in the Soft Cell sense, and there is of course within the record the flavour of decadent Weimar nightclubs; all smoke, mirrors and forbidden pleasures. There is something of Mr Norris changing trains about this – Isherwood at the Moka Efti or the November Group at the Cabaret Voltaire. Of course the album’s title (Adolf’s denunciation wryly inverted into celebration) suggests this connection and it is certainly continued through ‘Of Their Bones’, which is another one of those songs from 2018 that illuminates the state that we are in. As a nation (take your pick) or as a body of humanity. If it is somewhat simplistic in its evocation of that 1930s European history repeating then that is surely one of its strengths, for the song pulls no punches, hides no sentiment behind poesy. Atop a glooming reverberation that is almost martial in its undertow Fitzgerald sings “Of the men, of the women, Of the boys, of the girls” lost to the horrors of ideologies gone haywire. Unlike The Chills, however, Oskar’s Drum seem to have little sense of optimism for the future, at least in this moment.

Yet if mostly bleak shadowy ghosts inhabit this song, elsewhere on the record there are certainly glimmers of hope. On the wonderful album opener ‘This Dancing’ Altana and Fitzgerald pay homage to the inspiration of Bowie whilst ‘Walker’ captures the simple pleasures of nature (“A kingfisher leaping / A dancing blue jay / Goldfinch in his bright yellow gown”). ‘Walker’ in particular is a song I could see on a ‘Caught By The River’ playlist and that is surely a compliment of the highest order. Finally, album closer ‘Say No’ makes the point that whilst there may be little reason for optimism, acts of defiance are still ones we continue to be driven to perform.

Whilst these glimpses of sunlight serve to heighten the chiaroscuro in ‘Degenerate Art’ it is still from the deep shadows that most of the record draws its power. It’s that battle between light and dark again. That conflict between hope and despair, between whose poles we oscillate in tremulous existence.