Unpopular advent 2018 – Day 17

Princess Chelsea – The Loneliest Girl

There is a terrific moment towards the end of ‘The Loneliest Girl’’s closing track (the lovely ‘All I Need To Do’) in which Princess Chelsea sings about watching Springsteen and Little Steven singing ‘Promised Land’. Initially hearing the reference is something of a jarring moment, but then we quickly realise that it is the perfect connection for it punctures the notion of Springsteen as an essentially masculine figure and illuminates him as theatrical character (we’ll come back to this in a few days time), just as Princess Chelsea herself is a crafted Pop persona. And here we are again at this point where we celebrate Pop as theatre; Pop as the rejection of inherited definitions of authenticity.

‘The Loneliest Girl’ is a knowingly, lovingly constructed illusion housed within a carefully documented reality. Or is it the other way round? Certainly there appears to be an autobiographical narrative going on here but from the cover photograph/illustration to the songs themselves there is always the question mark hanging over concepts of truth and reality. Where does Chelsea Nikkel end and Princess Chelsea begin? Or indeed vice-versa. This is the eternal, essential Pop Star conundrum.

There is certainly something of Saint Etienne in Princess Chelsea too (the icy cool take on ‘And I Love Her’ would be her ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ if only the title track from this album hadn’t gone and made such a cheeky wonky photocopy of the Young vs Etienne classic), and since we are on the subject can I slip off on a momentary tangent and say how much I have been enjoying the 2018 re-issue of ‘Fox Base Beta’? It completely passed me by previously and though I was initially sceptical it really is rather tremendous, isn’t it? I’m aware too that this should not come as any sort of surprise really for when has anything involving Saint Etienne ever been less than magical?

When too has Princess Chelsea ever been anything less than magical? Certainly listening to The Loneliest Girl, then revisiting The Great Cybernetic Depression and L’il Golden Book (plus her terrific 2016 covers set ‘Aftertouch’) I’m struck that the answer is Pretty Much Never. Looking back too I have been reminded of those great Brunettes records (and man, there was another Springsteen reference right there in ‘Summer Love’ too) and let’s not forget that it’s Brunettes’ Jonathan Bree whose collaboration helps make ‘The Loneliest Girl’ so terrific and hey, wasn’t his own ‘Sleepwalking’ set just the best Magnetic Fields record that Stephin Merritt didn’t make in 2018? And whilst we are also on the caffeinated rush of writing, let’s also point out Chelsea’s contribution to a couple of cuts on that set returning the compliment as it were.

Glistening gems populate the entirety of ‘The Loneliest Girl’ but it’s to one of the most obviously autobiographical numbers that I keep coming back to. ‘Growing Older’ is a song about, well, growing older. Lyrically it is very straight and almost diaristic. Chelsea recounts facts and moments (“some of us are almost thirty /some of us are older” precedes the recounting of an encounter with a younger girl in a bar in which haircut envy appears to be the driving force of the observation) whilst metaphorically shrugging her shoulders and admitting that getting older is a lot more enjoyable that she might have thought a decade ago. A simple keyboard refrain roots the song whilst squalls of guitars and feedback seep into the background to lend texture and shade. This spacious sound stage on which Chelsea’s vocal drifts is not a million miles away from Molly Nilsson (whose terrific ’20/20′ set only just missed out on appearing here) or the gorgeous blissed out sparseness of Cara Dal Forno (whose 2016 ‘You Know What It’s Like’ set I somehow missed at the time despite adoring single ‘Fast Cars’). At its best (which is almost all of the time) Chelsea’s voice drifts over like Connie Stevens seducing Nico or Trish Keenan singing Ann-Margret numbers in that hillside meadow where we never did get to listen to Tracey Thorn. It’s a voice we at once recognise as being utterly familiar and yet simultaneously find ourselves being drawn into by the details of difference. It’s a good reference point for Princess Chelsea in general for she is an artist who can on the surface seem glimmeringly, glamorously Pop yet once the surface is touched the ripples reveal an intriguing and darker subterranean depth. To put it another way, Princess Chelsea is perhaps a Mrs Maisel of contemporary Pop. She’s certainly every bit as marvellous.

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 16

Deerful – Tell Me I Can Fix This on My Own

When I slid some songs from ‘Tell Me…’ onto Unpopular mixes earlier in the year I tweeted to the effect that the album is ‘A Distant Shore’ for coders. There is a strong temptation to leave this statement hanging in the air here, for surely there is nothing more that one could need to add?

At twenty seven minutes in length ‘Tell Me…’ clocks in just a shade longer than Tracey Thorn’s jewel so there is certainly a ‘physical’ similarity at play here. More than this though it is the feel of the two records that is almost entirely in sync across the decades that separates them. Both records explore similar threads of loss, distance and separation underpinned by deep connectedness. Both records hold individual gems within their grooves (physical and virtual respectively) yet both combine each of those moments to create a whole that somehow adds up to more than the sum of the individual parts. Each is long enough to weave a narrative that draws you in, each short enough to leave you yearning for more. Or at the very least to flip it over/press the ‘repeat’ button and listen all over again.

Of those gems on ‘Tell Me…’ it is the closing duo of ‘The Seaside Town’ and ‘Sunset Drive’ I keep coming back to, and not just because they are the cuts I chose for those Unpopular mixes and so am most familiar with through repeated playing. There is certainly something of the ‘Small Town Girl’ in ‘The Seaside Town’, with its waves gently washing on the sands and its timbre the pallor of promenades in winter. It brings to mind also that great Amanda Applewood record ‘I Love Boys’ and in particular the gorgeous ‘1983′. Admittedly it is entirely possible that this is me making my own connections out to my own specific context of growing up in a seaside town and ‘A Distant Shore’ being the most played record of that particularly mythic summer. Yet if these are not the kinds of deep connections that Pop insists on making then frankly what is the point of Pop at all?

‘The Seaside Town’ drifts along wistfully, almost plaintively to a conclusion, the tide receding on a holiday romance (or on the ghost of self) just as ‘Sunset Drive’ bump-starts into gear. This is the sounds of the disco heard from the shore, the draw of the dance floor both terrifying and seductive. This is a song that gleefully embraces the imagery and tradition of Pop as journey, music as the ultimate in escapology. I’m not sure there is a better compliment to proffer than that, except the aforementioned one about ‘Tell Me…’ being ‘A Distant Shore’ for coders. Well, quite.

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 15

The Chills – Snow Bound

If, on ‘The Blue Hour’, Suede made a record of monumental bleak sensuality then The Chills, on ‘Snow Bound’ have made a record of concise charming frustration. With every song clocking in under four minutes the whole album is almost half the length of Suede’s and whilst each is the correct length for its personal context, I cannot help but be drawn more to The Chills for playing firmly to the Popism rule of brevity. (At this points critics of the Unpopular writing style might well roll their eyes and wish said rule were applied here, but what are rules for if not to be twisted and broken?)

The frustration at play in the songs on ‘Snow Bound’ is that of both personal reflection and a wider, more global viewpoint. On ‘Easy Peazy’ Phillipps sings that “we shared great days / which somehow we fumbled / and then could do nothing / but watch as it crumbled” and one is not entirely certain if he is singing about his own group’s past or of a broader generational guilt. Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. Elsewhere Phillipps sings of making mistakes and causing heart-aches before suggesting that it is “time to atone”. Again, it’s ambiguous as to whether he means this personally or globally. Again, perhaps neither but probably both. This notion of being collectively, as humanity, both culpable for our self-destruction and the potential saviours was certainly firmly in place on The Chills’ previous set ‘Silver Bullets’ and those threads pull forwards into ‘Snow Bound’. Here is anger tempered by love; desperation softened by optimism. And after all, if there is any group more masterful than The Chills in making darkness sound bright, breezy and multi-coloured then I have yet to find it.

Part of the brilliance of The Chills is that there has always been something of the nursery rhyme or advertising jingle to many of Phillipps’ songs (‘Bee Bah Bee Bah Bee Bow’ might be the prime example of the former, ‘There’s Only One Station’ or ‘Always Time For Coca-Cola’ physical examples of the latter). This might just be the most perfect Pop Art compliment . Phillipps certainly has an ear for a hook both musically and lyrically and is adept at resisting the temptation to insert variations, instead making the most of perfect simplicity and pushing repetition to hang teetering on the fine line between delight and irritation. ‘Snow Bound’ then rattles along like the staccato Bam! Bam! Bam! of a Batman comic or of pellets on tin targets in a fairground shooting range. Roll up! Roll up! Hear the Geeks and their Far Out Pop Sounds!

Picking out a favourite from the swirling array of candy floss colours is tough but today I cannot see further than opener ‘Bad Sugar’ in that it so perfectly sets the tone both lyrically and musically for the rest of the set to follow. ‘Bad Sugar’ is a deceptively lovely song that explores the darkness of our times. In the opening verse Phillipps apparently sets out the progressive’s stall, describing “a herd of humans… hauling old convictions” and raising them “like a flag” whilst “we watch as they wind the clock back”. Yet this is Phillipps intentionally falling into the language trap because immediately we are into a chorus where the writer acknowledges: “But then I’m wrong – I know I’m wrong / It’s just people and how they get along” before recognising that to those “feeling down-beat”, “even bad sugar makes bitter taste sweet”. It’s this seam of deep love for a humanity that he/‘we’ simultaneously despair of that sets The Chills apart from most. Like the best Warhol screen prints, Phillipps goes on to repeat the form of frustration in a different combination of the same dark palette before juxtaposing again and again with the dazzling hues of (just about) hope. “Bad sugar makes bitter taste sweet” goes the jingle. So simply put. So eloquently executed. I’ll buy it.

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 14

Suede – The Blue Hour

For many years I told anyone who asked that I did not much care for Suede. The roots of this are firmly set in May of 1992 when I made a choice in a Reading record store between two debut singles that, I believe, had both garnered ‘Single Of The Week’ status from the ‘NME’ or ‘Melody Maker’ at a time in my life when These Things (still, just about) Mattered. A toss of a coin, a flick of the wrist and the choice was made. ‘Sunshine Smile’ by Adorable triumphed over ‘The Drowners’ and my irrational snooty disapproval of Suede began.

It did not help their case that Suede almost immediately became fully anointed by the music press as The Ones. Blushing flushes of enthusiasm over singles I could handle, but preening multi page articles and cover stardom was another matter. This is how it is when you are young enough to care about such things and old enough to tip things on their heads and be intentionally obtuse and dismissive about them. On reflection I would not have it any other way and besides, it meant certain delights passed over became hidden treasures for future pleasure.

Suede certainly became a future pleasure. Indeed, it was only after they had burned brightly, faded away, been all-but forgotten and then unexpectedly reappeared that my interest was piqued. New friends whose tastes I trusted were little short of devotional (and sometimes somewhat in excess of obsessive) and so I dipped a toe. Thus it was that 2016’s ‘Night Thoughts’ was the first Suede record I bought and it is only by some strange oversight that it did not feature in the advent series of that year, for it was certainly one of my most played and enjoyed records. One thing I enjoyed about that record was its sense of the cinematic or the theatrical and indeed this notion of Pop as theatre is a common thread I start to see emerge during this year, which is perhaps to say in my ever-changing interests. It is not something I would have welcomed in younger years but as we have said, this is okay. This is not an unpleasant development.

If there was something of the cinematic in ‘Night Thoughts’ it is certainly extended and further exposed on ‘The Blue Hour’. Is the trilogy of records from ‘Bloodsports’ to ‘Blue Hour’ some kind of strange concept? Is it a wildly extravagant Progressive Rock narrative of the imagination? Perhaps, perhaps. I am sure that this is documented somewhere and I am sure that some of those aforementioned obsessives can enlighten me but I am not sure I am ready for such things, not sure I am sufficiently willing to be immersed in the depths of madness I suspect is at play here. For ‘The Blue Hour’ is certainly somewhat unhinged and nonsensical in that the feel of the record is one of opaqueness and uncertainty. In this it recollects the Rolling Blackouts record and one wonders if RBCF were Suede fans in their youth. It would certainly fit.

This opaqueness and uncertainty, this infusion of tension and anxiety that sits across the entirety of ‘The Blue Hour’ is perhaps what makes it so compelling as a product very much of its time(s). It is a record that feels both vasty monumental and wearily decrepit. It puts me in mind of The Who pissing against that concrete monolith, itself a nod to ‘2001’ of course and there is that cinematic, theatrical reference creeping back again. So it goes. So it is. So it will always be.

Critics will doubtless cast aspersions on Brett Anderson’s aspirations to literary landscapes (I admit to having had a copy of his ‘Coal Black Mornings’ on my ‘to-read’ pile for some considerable time, but that it remains unread is more to do with a general aversion to Rock Biographies than anything else more personal) and this is certainly to the fore on ‘The Blue Hour’, never more so than on my favourite track ‘Wastelands’. Obviously referencing Eliot’s poem (can anything using that title ever escape the inevitable shackling of reference, at least in part? No, thought not.) ‘Wastelands’ segues neatly and seamlessly from album opener ‘As One’ and firmly sets the mood of the album as one of bleak sensuality. Like Gravenhurt’s magnificent ‘Hollow Men’, ‘Wastelands’ conjures a cacophonous world of strangely compelling ugliness. Juxtaposing seductive imagery (“I watch the sweat fall / Against your clothes”) with hardness (“the car beside the road” and severing ties) the song knowingly plunders our shared library of visual metaphors. Then there is something exquisite about the way in which Anderson delivers that line about “the way you make your exits / there are no words” (although when I first heard the song I thought he was singing about her handwriting “and the way you make your ‘x’s” which actually I think is a much better line. Brett, if you are reading this, you can have that one on me). Admittedly those lines about how “our veins are opened” feel clumsy and just too sixth-form-tortured-poet but then again isn’t that just exactly what Eliot’s poem connects to most obviously? Perhaps it all fits after all.

Musically ‘Wastelands’ treads the fine line between overbearing and accessable. It is firmly in the tradition of Guitar Rock Music, and if sometimes that can be the worst condemnation of all, sometimes too it can be a heartening compliment. Again, ‘bleak sensuality’ feels apposite in describing the sounds so let us recycle that phrase and be done with it. It is there too in Anderson’s vocal delivery, most notably in the way he delivers his S’s. Sibilant and harsh, if they occasionally seem All Too Much then that surely is an intentional part of the deal. Here is frustration. Here is diabolical betrayal, a desperate need to find something lost that never existed in the first place. Theatrical illusion, as we said.

So as the future unfurls in a violent flourish of uncertainty one thing we can be sure of is that Suede finally won their way into my heart. I look forward to continuing the journey.

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 13

Alison Statton & Spike – Bimini Twist

In the Unpopular universe (a vasty superior alternative to the ‘real’ one) Alison Statton is a household name. So famous in fact that the renowned Pants Yell named an entire album after her. Such things are more important than most people can ever grasp.

I have mentioned in the past, notably in that piece about the importance of ‘A Distant Shore‘ how invaluable the sounds of Weekend and Young Marble Giants were to the mythic construction of my teenage years. In my Higher Art exam I fell into making chalk drawings inspired by Wendy Smith and further similar illustrations documented the fleeting summers of momentous awakenings that we all experience when we are 16, 17, 18 whatever. Those drawings are all long lost, burned on the various pyres of self-erasure but not so long ago I discovered a photograph of my old bedroom and there, on the wall, is that drawing I’m sure I called Weekend Stroll. In my head it was better than it looks in the photograph but that’s the pleasure of memory I suppose.

Statton’s voice was such a key part of the Weekend and YMG sound but I admit that I was enthralled by the jazz inflections on ‘La Varieté’. Earnest fellow architecture students saw the sleeve next to my drawing board and sneered, telling me this was faux-jazz and that I should be listening to Bird or Mingus. In later years I did (and still do on occasion) but they have never moved me as much as Weekend did. And much as I dig Peggy Lee, it’s Statton I keep going back to.

What delight then to see a new record in 2018 by Statton and Weekend partner in crime Spike Williams. ‘Bimini Twist’ is in many ways just what you would expect/hope for in a Statton and Spike record, which is to say that it is a small, intimate record where space is as valuable as sound. This notion of emptiness, of negative space within a record is one that was so critical to the genius of Young Marble Giants, and didn’t Kevin Pearce once so presciently say that ‘Colossal Youth’ was directly connected to minimalist techno? Hard to argue with that. Hard not to argue too that the value of leaving void in a recording is a thread weaving directly through all of Statton’s records from ‘La Varieté’ through the terrific Divine & Statton albums and all her collaborations with Spike to the present day.

So ‘Bimini Twist’ is a record of minimalism; a record of comfortable but never complacent isolation. Songs like the opening ‘Just Us Two’ and ‘Alone Together’ most explicitly refer to the pleasure and tension of relationships but this cool semi-detachment is always tempered by a genuine warmth in both Statton’s voice and the accompanying instrumentation. Mostly this is a guitar picked and simply strummed just so but there are also some strange strings burying into the mix in places, whilst on ‘Just us Two’ there is the a faintly terrifying tinkle of electronic droplets falling like icy rain alongside a squeaking techno itch. It is a fascinating texture next to Statton’s voice and is certainly one of the highlights of the set. Oddly (or perhaps not oddly at all) another highlight closes out the album. ‘Sleepless’ is the song where the sound seems to most obviously shift into another realm, moving towards the kind of deeply shaded folk environments currently being explored by the likes of Alison Cotton and The Left Outsides. This, and bonus track ‘Cecilia Freeny’s Mind’ are songs I see perhaps as sketches for a next record, one I could easily see sitting neatly on the Clay Pipe Music label and wouldn’t it be as lovely to see a Statton and Spike record sleeved by Francis Castle as by Wendy Smith?

If pressed to pick one track from ‘Bimini Twist’, however, I would likely opt for ‘Sixty Second Window’. It is a song about separation, a song about forgetting and remembering, about regret and determination. Perhaps it is simply the context of the times we find ourselves living through but the song also feels to touch on a broader, deeper theme of separation and the negative elements of isolationism. To say it is a song about the Brexit debacle may be going a step too far, but perhaps not. Sonically it is a song that slips along on the back of a gently dripping guitar and a softly oscillating lower tone as textural backing. It is certainly the song where you can most easily re-imagine the instrumentation as one of those minimalist techno cuts we made connections to earlier and there is also a gorgeous symbiosis between the sonic separation and the lyrical meaning.

‘Sixty Second Window’, like all of ‘Bimini Twist’, leaves space to breathe, space to dream, space to escape into, enveloped by the cool warmth of Statton’s voice. As we said at the start, it is a universe vastly superior to the ‘real’ one.

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.