It may be terribly unfashionable these days to admit it, but in my younger years I would certainly have referred to some music as a ‘guilty pleasure’. In the middle of my fifth decade (or wait, is it the middle of my sixth decade? Numbers confuse me…) such a notion is a nonsensical one, but I can still sense my younger and immeasurably more foolish self casting a withering eye into 2021, seeing Kacey Musgrave’s ‘Star-crossed’ being touted as a favourite record of the year and asking, with that insufferable smrik, ‘really?’. To which I’m sighing ‘get over yourself’ and an emphatic ‘yes’. Yes, yes, yes, yes and a fifth time yes. Really.
Before I let myself get too carried away, however, let me assure that more youthful facsimile of my self that there remain very few, ah, ‘contemporary Pop’ acts who remotely appeal. Yet where once that may have been dictated by a certain elitist snobbery (and nothing wrong with that in its place, which is inevitably in the darkened corner of the dusty library with Colonel Mustard and his lead-piping (oo-er missus)) these days it’s rather more honestly a case of ‘tried that, didn’t do anything for me’. I have tried too. I mean, not especially hard or nothin’, because let’s face it there are only so many hours in the day and there are all those weirdo electronica and weird-folk transmissions to tune into. So many detective novels to read too, for that matter. But yes. Yes I tried listening to Taylor Swift. Yes I listened to a couple of Billie Eilish songs. Yes I sampled some bits of Lorde. And yes I… No, actually, that’s about it. None of it made any sense to me and that is probably as it should be. Perhaps I could offer an objective view on why none of it sounds interesting to me, but frankly life is too short and as I say, there is always another detective novel to read. Fair play to those folks similarly in their fifties who do find something of value over there. I harbour a suspicion that any interest may be tied up in some strange way with children, but that’s possibly hilariously simplistic and/or insulting. But anyway, look, I’ve spent three decades with teenagers and I am so done with all of that.
Kacey Musgraves though, eh? Do The Young People like Kacey Musgraves? I have no idea. I’d probably have no idea about her either, were it not for one of the always eagerly awaited Legends Of Country end of year picks. That would have been for 2018’s ‘Golden Hour’, perhaps the record where Musgraves’ Country roots really started to blend with a gorgeously sweet Pop aesthetic to great effect. Three years on and ‘Star-crossed’ puts a definitive polish to the ‘Golden Hour’ sheen to produce a record that gleams with a delicious surface atop the sometimes troubled and weary landscape that lingers beneath (‘Star-crossed’ being, if you did not already know, a movie-accompanied, magic mushroom/Shakespeare influenced, three-part high concept piece about a/the journey through marriage into divorce).
Tropes of love, betrayal, breakup and divorce are eternal and essential parts of the melodramatic world of Country music of course, and last year’s ‘Gaslighter’ by The Chicks, for example, played the card of indignant, righteous anger to perfection. Musgraves though neatly sidesteps away from those dramas, instead, like Frida Hyvönen on her ‘Dream of Independence’ set, using language that is often quite flatly descriptive and matter of fact, shrugging off the potential for gloom with a self-possessed confidence that charms as much as it challenges. It adds a strangely powerful core to the record, like a taught steel wire dipped in glitter.
So if the Chicks’ ‘Gaslighter’ unflinchingly confronted the perpetrator of betrayal with a gut curdling yawp of anger, Musgraves hardly gives the unseen Other the time of day. He is there in the background in the first ‘act’ of the album, but really only comes in for a kicking on ‘Breadwinner’. Even here it’s more a light finger flick to the ear in comparison to the fire and brimstone more typically served up in the Country canon. It leaves Musgraves scope to focus on herself, with a re-construction effort in the third ‘act’ that is by turns vulnerable (‘Easier Said’) and optimistically self-possessed (‘What Doesn’t Kill Me’), culminating in the euphoric ‘There Is A Light’. Starting off with a delicate finger picking guitar refrain, the song quickly settles into a soft groove from whose safety blanket it then soars to the stars on a magic carpet of trilling bossa flute and a liberal sprinkling of gold dust. Deliciously addictive.
Curiously though, ‘There Is A Light’ is not the euphoric conclusion to the record that one might expect, for their follows an intriguing cover of Violeta Parra’s timeless ‘Gracias a la Vida’. Beginning with the crackle of vinyl and Musgraves’ voice as an echo from the mists of history, the number then morphs through what feels like a compressed history of music production to conclude with Kacey as an wildly technologically warped entity from a sci-fi dystopian nightmare, before flipping back, just in the nick of time, to reveal her purity of form as a Spanish guitar softly flourishes to end it all. It’s like the entire concept of the album condensed into four and half minutes of madcap experimentation, and none the worse for that.
‘Star-crossed’ then is by some considerable distance the most popular of the Unpopular advent records of 2021. Its fifteen tracks will take up nearly fifty minutes of your time yet manage to make that feel like a butterfly blink of an eye. A treasure and a pleasure. No guilt involved.
Thirteen years ago I made my first Unpopular advent collection. As is the way of such things, when I glance back at the songs and records now there are many that I have forgotten all about. Some may not have stood the test of time but that is fine. Not all art is made to be timeless, and Pop music perhaps least of all. Other records from 2008, on the other hand, do still sound remarkable and none more so than Frida Hyvönen’s ‘Silence Is Wild’ that topped my personal chart that year. It’s been nine years too since Hyvönen’s last album in English (2016’s Swedish language ‘Kvinnor och barn‘ sounded terrific, but my anglo-centric arrogance has to admit to hankering after a ‘Säkert! på engelska’ equivalent…) so it was not without a degree of trepidation that I picked up ‘Dream Of Independence’, wondering if the magic would hit me again.
Pre-album single ‘A Funeral In Banbridge’ certainly suggested that ‘Dream of Independence’ would be something special. With it’s mid-paced piano and plaintive guitar piercing the air, the song is literally driven forward by Hyvönen’s relentless vocal that scarcely pauses for breath in its three minutes and forty seven seconds of astonishingly forthright yet remarkably poignant narrative. To reference an old English advertising campaign, the song tells a story of exactly what it says on the tin, Hyvönen relating everything in an almost stream of conscious exhalation of anxiety and relief. From having a salad and a drink on the train through Wales to the car full of dog hair at the song’s remarkably, brilliantly blunt conclusion, the song shows Hyvönen’s skill for straight descriptive narrative that somehow carries an emotional heft that is as powerful as it is deftly subtle. Sure, it ends up being a highlight on the album, but only as one of a number of highlights, each in turn only barely discernible as such amongst the fabulously high quality of the whole album.
It’s as a whole album that ‘Dream of Independence’ really finds its strength too, as each song supports the others to build a profoundly moving portrait of lives entering middle-age with all its wonders and fears. It would be a mistake of course to suggest that the album/portrait is entirely autobiographical, but that is part of the appeal of art, after all. Certainly a song like the terrific album closer ‘Painter’ is something that can play the game of meta-narrative as a singer/songwriter examines the myth of creative genius, the (self)imposed imperative of building bodies of work, the illusory ‘power’ of the goddess that is more accurately a construct of entrapment. Like the rest of ‘Dream of Independence’ it is by turns fractured, complex, self-contained yet inextricably connected to the whole of the album. Elsewhere there are songs that take in children (‘Abyss at Bay (Daughter)’, facing down the menopause (‘New Vision’) and facing down the ageing face in the mirror (er, ‘Face’, oddly enough). “Once my pride now a disgrace / Have you seen my ageing face?” she sings in a marvellous blend of hysteria and humour. As Dean Wareham might say, every fuck here is a flying fuck. Magnificently so.
If there is a point in which all of this does veer most explicitly into autobiography, however, it is on the six and half minute documentary short of ’14 at 41′. I mean, there is not actually a film for this, except the one we must surely construct in our minds’ eyes as Hyvönen so eloquently takes us on a journey into unexpected new romance, stumbled upon in a summer field in which Lana Del Ray is playing. Now personally I do not understand the appeal of Lana Del Ray, but others (Hyvönen’s protagonists, one assumes, amongst them) do and that is fine. It is only Pop music, after all. Therein lies the catch of course, because whilst only love can break our hearts, perhaps Pop music can be one of those threads that can help bind them together. Certainly the thread is there in ’14 at 41′ as Hyvönen conjures some of those emerging passions of obsession and attachment.
Now any remotely regular Unpopular reader will know that there is an argument to be made saying Pop is, at its core, about the essence of being 16, that being an age at which elements coalesce into an identity that may still be seeking confirmation but is essentially complete. With this in mind then I think it’s particularly poignant that Hyvönen pitches herself back before this point, to an age where the thrill of the potential for emotional attachment is perhaps at its peak. That point before what Lester Bangs once called “the bullshit of being a teenager” has yet to consume all the promise of possibility under the deadweight of ‘meaning’ and the weary navigation of ‘cool’. As Hyvönen seems to suggest in this song, all of those things are as irrelevances in the face of love, where happiness is transmitted through tenderness and nature rather than the contents of a record collection or book shelves. There is an implicit understanding too in the song that this notion of an earlier self is recognisably illusory, is actually little more than a narrative device that means little in the captivating pleasure to be found in the now. It’s that flux of time again, pulsing backwards and forwards, a well from which we might draw nostalgic strength but only in order to nourish the present.
In the end then, ‘Dream of Independence’ is a triumph of complexity sneaking stealthily in under a cloak of descriptive narrative. It is an unashamedly mature record about loss, anxiety, love, nature, magic and age. It plays intelligent games of real/not real and weaves the most captivating tapestry out of past, present and the possibilities of every future. Magnificent.
I’m gonna show my, ahem, ignorance now by telling you that I had not heard of The Weather Station until earlier this year. And although ‘Ignorance’ has apparently topped 2021 music charts here in the UK’s ‘Uncut’ magazine and over the Atlantic in ‘The New Yorker’ (but possibly not in ‘The Atlantic’) there is still a good chance it would have passed me by had it not been for a chance encounter on a friend’s Instagram feed, such is my relationship with The Media these days. Ah, the hilarious irony of writing over 20,000 words about the music I’ve enjoyed in 2021 and fretting about whether anyone will read them whilst simultaneously admitting that I DON’T READ ANYTHING ABOUT MUSIC myself and only heard a record because I tapped on a picture. Well heck, if the 21st Century is about anything then it is surely about hypocrisy and living in one’s own head, so fuck it, right?
Sorry. Getting sweary there. Should have limited that to when I wrote about Arab Strap. It isn’t becoming when contemplating The Weather Station or this very, very fine album that apparently is about singer songwriter Tamara Linderman’s meditation on The Climate Emergency. Sorry. Now I sound flippant. Even fucking flippant. Now Alistair, write out 1000 times “I Must Not Be Flippant About The Climate Emergency”. And no command-C, command-V. Lord, I hope Tamara Linderman has a sense of fucking humour. If she even reads this. Which I would rather doubt. I mean, if I’d topped the Best Music of 2021 lists in ‘The New Yorker’ and ‘Uncut’ (but possibly not ‘The Atlantic’ – does it even do a best music list? I forget…) I’d not be dirtying my hands with Unpopular blog nonsense.
All of which is by way of admitting that, as you may have suspected, I am not really sure what, or how, to write about ‘Ignorance’. My mind is kind of blank, struggling to come to an understanding perhaps of a theme so vast in its complexity and yet so simple in its ultimate meaning. That I’m gloriously, bewilderingly, in awe of a record that in some respects I should not really dig but which somehow has inveigled its way into my subconscious, thrilling me with a delicious darkness of tone and lightness of touch. It is a record that I was not expecting, and that of course is part of its appeal.
As with Maxine Funke’s ‘Seance’, ‘Ignorance’ has also had me familiarising myself with the previous Weather Station records. Yet strangely, whilst there is much about the folkie singer-songwriter vibe of previous albums I ought to enjoy, I have not found myself replaying those records and indeed have made judicious use of the ‘skip’ function. Perhaps had I heard them in original context I would have enjoyed them more, but listening in 2021 I admit I find them a little sterile, a touch too obvious and certainly lacking in the kind of ineffable otherness that ‘Ignorance’ is suffused with and which keeps drawing me back to it. And if ‘Seance’ sounds like a beautiful summation of Funke’s recordings over the space of the past 13 years, then ‘Ignorance’ is more like a sudden leap from the safety of well-worn paths into a universe that is altogether stranger than that previously inhabited. Less folk, more jazz. Certainly just that bit marvellously unhinged and off-kilter. Magically out of step with itself in the manner of This Is The Kit, perhaps.
Of course it is not immediately obvious that these songs might be meditations on a global crisis, and that is to Linderman’s credit. As with other songs and records that I have enjoyed in 2021 there is a necessary distancing from the central theme. These are songs that are successful attempts to couch fear, frustration, mistrust, hope and love into more personal, human scenarios that act as metaphor. Because as I say, the whole theme of humanity’s so far largely toxic relationship with the planet is so potentially complex yet ultimately simple that to address it in a direct manner through art is rather doomed to being read as either a shrill squawk of hysterical over-simplification or a profoundly dull extended scientific treatise. Or something akin to reading 20,000 words about someone’s favourite records.
The songs on ‘Ignorance’ then are touching and touched, none more so than the haunting ‘Trust’. It recalls Gravenhurst’s peerless song of the same title back in 2007 when it graced the equally superlative ‘The Western Lands’. Back then the much-missed Nick Talbot sang about how “trust is a hard thing to come by” and these days nothing has changed. Indeed if anything that sentiment has been amplified to an extraordinary degree, a seemingly critical element in the self-destructive make-up of 21st Century humanity’s relationship with itself, creating this polarised and fractured present. The Weather Station’s ‘Trust’ though is not so much about that dispiriting deterioration of trust as about the enormous, all-enveloping sense of release that falls upon the realisation that it has gone forever. It seems to be a song that is about endings and withdrawals, about generosity of spirit and the coming to terms with loss that only such generosity can bring. It is almost impossibly moving and if it is not exactly cheery then it is at least underpinned with a doomed delicacy that lands on us like petals from dying roses or ash flakes blown from distant forest fires.
So if I have sworn and conducted myself in an infuriatingly flippant manner at times here it is only because I ultimately lack the emotional and intellectual intelligence to adequately explain why ‘Ignorance’ is such a captivating record. But at least I fucking tried.
Hattie Cooke – ‘Mistaken’ from Bliss Land Maxine Funke – ‘Quiet Shore’ from Seance
I forget quite how I stumbled on the Castles In Space label and their Subscription Library service. I think it was something to do with following connections from The Modernist magazine out to a project by Chris Sharp called Concretism, which in turn led to being intrigued by a musical project that could be called the Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan. To be honest I was also probably bored with some of the music I was too familiar with and so just perfectly positioned to fall down rabbit holes of new things.
To be honest too it took me a while to twig that the label’s name might be a nod to The Orb. Reading Kris Needs’ terrific book ‘Babble On An’ Ting’ in May naturally put me into a bit of re-exploration of The Orb, whose records I had foolishly all but ignored after an initial infatuation with the Ultraworld back in 1989 to ’91 or so. So it was that ‘Spanish Castles In Space’ drifted back into my consciousness on a sunny afternoon in June and a penny distantly dropped. By this time I had already been digging records by the likes of Twelve Hour Foundation, Dohnavùr, Jilk, Polypores. All names new to me, but sounds strangely familiar from pockets of time in my past listening to Warp and Basic Channel records. In more recent times too perhaps those aesthetic connections to the likes of the Ghost Box and Polytechnic Youth labels whose noises have drifted in and out (though mostly out) of my orbits. In spite of these pockets of interest, however, much electronic music can still sound charmlessly cold to me, like sounds being created by blokes more interested in the tech than music being conjured by magicians. An academic exercise rather than a need to communicate, perhaps. Thankfully that lingering doubt seldom if ever nudges me with the Castles In Space releases, fired through as they seem to be with a common glaze that reflects a pull of landscape, architecture, modern mythology, whatever.
Then there is Hattie Cooke and her utterly beguiling ‘Bliss Land’ set, which seems to sidestep all of that electronic music self-reverential tedium entirely. Maybe it is because she approaches the tools with an interest in what she might make with it rather than how it might work, or perhaps it is due to her just having gotten bored of the overly earnest folk/singer-songwriter thing that fired her younger years. Not that it matters of course, so perhaps too it is best not to over-think this and instead revel in the beautiful, raw reverberations of hollowed-out 21st Century existence that ‘Bliss Land’ delivers.
Now I’ve said throughout this advent series that there might be threads of themes running between records. Inevitably this likely says much more about me that it does about the records themselves. My reading might be very different to the artists’ intent, but this is a part of the appeal of art, after all. Yet one of those imaginary threads might be about art that is fascinated by the flux of time, and ‘Bliss Land’ to me certainly feels to me as if it inhabits at least part of that liminal space. It seems to infiltrate tracks like ‘Youth‘, with its accompanying video of photographs documenting a curated memoryscape of perceived innocence, like Gwenno on Mogadon, maybe. It’s there too in ‘Lovers Game’ with its wistful reflection on how time can twist recollections of broken relationships, Cooke at times coming over like Sarah Cracknell’s nihilistic younger cousin. Elsewhere, ‘Invisible Lines’ hovers in the place where an oscillating anxiety between the almost simultaneous comfort and fear of insularity reverberates in our psyches, whilst ‘Cars’ is Molly Nillson serenading a mediated memory of Gary Numan in John Foxx’s Underpass. Possibly. Meanwhile, to get back to Cooke’s aforementioned teenage roots in acoustic singer/songwriting for a moment, what about the wonderful acoustic version of ‘One Foot Out Of The Door’ that graces a 7″ accompanying the album? This latter cut really pulls out the echoes of Allison Statton’s Young Marble Giants and Weekend excursions. On an Unpopular mix earlier in the year I could not resist including it next to the ’81 demo take of Weekend’s ‘Red Planes’ and I admit it is one of my personal favourite mix juxtapositions.
Best of all though is the thumping heartbeat driven void of ‘Mistaken’, where Cooke sings with a sweet plaintiveness that ‘things feel like they’re going backwards’. It may be a song where the state of relationships serve as metaphor for more global issues or it might indeed be the flip of that, but regardless of which way you may want to view things, it’s hardly a cheery scenario. ‘Happiness is illusion’ Cooke insists in a voice that sounds crystalline as a mountain spring, before fading on a repetition of ‘maybe I’m mistaken’ that loops on itself in eternal whispers of self-doubt and hope.
Now if Hattie Cooke found herself falling out of step with the overly earnest folk/singer-songwriter thing then she is surely not alone. One of my few face to face interactions with another person this year (an enormously enjoyable evening in a Sidmouth pub) touched on this very issue, as an old friend reflected on how, if he really wanted to hear a singer-songwriter who sounded like Vashti Bunyan then he would listen to Vashti Bunyan, thankyouverymuch. It’s a fair point that I broadly agree with, and yet, and yet…
There is certainly something of Vashti Bunyan in the sounds of Maxine Funke, whose extraordinary ‘Seance’ set has so charmed me this year. Not so much in the vocal itself (Funke’s is a lower register and often less pure in timbre) but rather that they seem to share a curiously earthy yet otherworldly mystique. It’s in the way too that both Bunyan and Funke seem interested in creating a songspace that is defined by a minimal number of strokes. They seem to challenge themselves (and us) to craft something where negative space is as valuable as actual sound. An audio exemplification of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s Zen Twigs photographs, perhaps.
With a string of releases stretching back to 2008’s ‘Lace’ LP (‘Felt’ and ‘Silk’ following in 2012 and 2018 respectively), New Zealand resident Funke has clearly been travelling her own path below the Unpopular radar for some time. It all makes for a tremendous back catalogue to explore of course, and I have spent many days during this Autumn into Winter listening to her songs on a repeating loop, losing myself in their quiet solitude as I have pored over 19th Century maps, entranced by imagined yesterdays.
The Colourful Storm label that ‘Seance’ appears on is also new to me, although perhaps it should not be as in the past few years they have been behind vinyl reissues of those wonderful Blueboy albums and a compilation of Velocette (the San Francisco based ambient techno project of Jason Williams, not the ex-Comet Gain band) whose ‘Sonorities By Starlight’ set I remember enjoying greatly back in 1996. Alongside these reissues however sit new and intriguing releases such as an eponymous album by Princess Diana of Wales (nom de plume of London-based Melbourne-born Laila Sakini) and the ‘Tangerine‘ collection of songs recorded in 2011 to 2012 by Reiko and Tori Kudo. Unpopular devotees of Maher Shalal Hash Baz will no doubt have been way ahead of me on that particular one.
If ‘Seance’ conjures impressions of Maher Shalal Hash Baz primitivism then it also recalls the early 1970’s recordings by Sibylle Baier collected on the ‘Colour Green’ album. Again, that value of emptiness; the importance of what is not there being as critical as what is. Compiled mostly of short compositions that inhabit a span of between two to three and a half minutes each, ‘Seance’ sounds homespun without ever coming over as wilfully quaint. Songs like ‘Moody Relish’ with its ‘Colossal Youth’ snaps and voids and ‘Goodbye’ with its tape hissing ghosts of summer lawns are as captivatingly withdrawn as they are memorably near non-existent. At more than twice the length of almost any other song in her extensive repertoire, meanwhile, ‘Quiet Shore’ is in some ways an oddity, in others a magnificent summation of progress and, perhaps, a signpost to the future. Like those similarly lengthy numbers on David Lance Callahan’s ‘English Primitive I’ it is a piece that inhabits a space that is both easily recognisable yet strangely off-kilter. The landscape vibrates like a mirage. Notes echo off distant hills with a sombre insistence, like a fox’s cry or an insect’s thrum; nature as a tinnitus grumble transformed to an awkward beauty.
A communion with the illusory spirits of place and time, ‘Seance’ is as close to the essence of emptiness and/or existence as it might be possible to reach without disappearing entirely into worthless cliché. No more, and certainly no less than a triumph.
Landscapes are never settled. At some level we understand this, even as our perceptions of them are informed by freeze-framed moments in paintings, poetry, prose, photographs and our minds’ eyes. Our captured memories are simultaneously fixed in time and threaded into the past and future through threads of documentation and imagination. Notions of permanence are eroded by history and interventions both human and natural, the hands of both sculpting energies through time and motion. Landscape envelopes and penetrates us even whilst distancing itself. Moments slip. Earth slides. Blossom falls and leaves kiss greens; words ineffective against the blisters of time.
Musicians and composers of course have also striven to capture the landscapes surrounding us, and if they are perhaps less given to recording the moments that settle on our retinas then they are certainly more suited to capturing that essence of time slipping through the cracks of contemplation. Perhaps too a better balm to those blisters. Of contemporary composers connecting with landscape through music, Andrew Wasylyk is certainly one of the most intriguing and accomplished. A trilogy of albums exploring aspects of the eastern Scottish realms he calls home include the marvellous ‘The Parillion’ which was nominated for the 2019 Scottish Album of the Year award. The other two instalments, ‘Themes for Buildings and Spaces’ from 2017 and last year’s ‘Fugitive Light and Themes of Consolation’ are hardly less impressive and immersive pieces that glitter and flow with Jazzy ambience and earthy esoterica.
Some of that Jazz-tinged coolness certainly drifts into Wasylyk’s most recent work, although I would suggest too that the gorgeous ‘Balgay Hill: Morning In Magnolia’ album is also perhaps the warmest in tone of his records to date. Released by the reliably brilliant and highly collectable Clay Pipe Music label, ‘Balgay Hill’ is an eloquent series of luminous morning meditations centred on Dundee’s 19th Century Balgay Park, a space where Wasylyk found solace and inspiration during the Lockdown Spring of 2020.
Now I am certain there will come a point (and perhaps we have already reached it?) where we will be universally weary of projects made during/about Lockdown, but really the best of such works are examples of artists continuing their craft and responding, inevitably, to the contexts imposed upon them. Personally, I have long been a believer in the idea that the best environment for creativity is one where clear boundaries and expectations are set to work within; the illusive ‘freedom’ of the open brief a recipe for vague meandering. Certainly there is none of that vagueness on ‘Balgay Hill’, where meditations are instead beautifully crafted into deliciously brief episodes of transcendence, infused by sunlight and dew on barely opened eyelids.
The compositions are as poetic as their titles and include such choice numbers as ‘Sun Caught Cloud Like The Belly Of A Cat’, ‘Smiling School For Calvinists’, ‘Blossomlessness #2’, ‘Western Necropolis Twilight’ and ‘Avril Hydrangeas’: Every one a charming, sublime sliver of instrumental, ambient folktronica that recall the likes of July Skies and epic45 as well as the hazy off-centre early outings by Black Moth Super Rainbow and satanstompingcaterpillars, whose down-tempo hip-hop influenced psychotropic folk ‘Balgay Hill’ most often reminds me. Essential too are the trumpet and flugelhorn contributions of fellow Taysider Rachel Simpson, elements that seduce us with warmth and the promise of security amongst solitary uncertainty. One does not need to have known such uncertainty to understand at an elemental level the emotional discord suggested, for this succour resonates within the music and seeps softly into our psyche, soothing fears we may not ever have realised existed.
Nor does one need to know Balgay Park in order to know the landscape conjured by Wasylyk, for they are the inner miniatures we carry with us always: Filmic flickers of light on the canvas; the worlds we find in pebbles; Emily Dickinson’s “casual simplicity”. ‘Balgay Hill: Morning In Magnolia’ is an album of compositions that may be elementally rooted to place and time but is also a timeless evocation of a bigger, wider spirit: A transcendental journey to the inner landscapes of solace and hope, enveloped in the clutch of nature and architecture.
If there are common threads in some of the records in this year’s Unpopular advent then one of them may be that of the flux between past and present; the illusory nature of the perceived persistence of memory. If any record can truly be said to be about such things, however, it is surely the stunning ‘Neither Is – Nor Ever Was’ album by Constant Follower. Written following a ten year period of rehabilitation and isolation after a devastating attack in Glasgow left songwriter Stephen McAll (then still a teenager) semi-paralysed and with all memories lost, it is quite literally an excursion into a realm where memory is (re)constructed from what we find around us in the present. A collage of possible falsehoods masquerading as precious, hoped-for realities, perhaps.
Even with no knowledge of this backstory, however, there is an ineffable sense of melancholy throughout the record that hints of a deep, inexplicable sorrow married to an elusive gentle optimism. This means that it is certainly not a record that sounds sorry for itself, but rather that it is one circling the ground at the edges of what is here/not here and what is there/not there. The seen and the unseen switch places with every blink of the eyes. Like a Bert Jansch soundtrack to a David Lynch short film, ‘Neither Is – Nor Ever Was’ is an artefact crafted lovingly into being from jetsam on the beach delicately bound together into peculiarly natural form with fragments of thread clutched from the air. The record resonates too with a similar energy that can be found in some of Jad Fair or Daniel Johnston’s recordings: In other words a deceptively simple form that cloaks the complexities of fragile self-doubt married to the inescapable need to create. Impulses that come from somewhere deep and magical.
Co-produced by Kramer and released on the iconic Shimmy Disc label, ‘Neither Is – Nor Ever Was’ reminds me of hearing the first Red House Painters recordings on ‘Down Colorful Hill’ some thirty years ago now. It feels similarly, extraordinarily, other-worldly whilst being simultaneously rooted in the rich loam of a here and now that glistens with the delicate patina of mediated nostalgia. Like the best art it both connects powerfully at a personal level whilst remaining detached and imperiously self-contained. Such a difficult balancing act to pull off.
Not that it is just McAll carrying off this stunning balancing act, for on ‘Neither Is – Nor Ever Was’ he is superbly supported by Andrew Pankhurst, Amy Campbell and Kathleen Stosch, each of whom add their musical weight to produce a sound that is gossamer thin and elegiacally light of touch. Elsewhere too it is worth noting the Constant Follower’s role in pulling together the tremendous ’19-21 Fray, Dissolve Into Fade’ compilation of ‘Death Collective’ recordings by various artists in the environs of Stirling and its surrounding landscape. Constant Follower contribute the Boards of Canada meets Erik Satie in a flotation tank gem of ‘Amiama Dolphin’ but every one of the other nine tracks are as idiosyncratically intriguing.
Nothing else though can reach the heights nor the depths of Constant Follower, as ‘Neither Is – Nor Ever Was’ transcends the moribund realm of sensitive folkie singer songwriters with an ease that is as effortless as it is individual. Breathtaking.
There are few artists who have given me as much pleasure during the past thirty odd years as Dean Wareham and John Darnielle. The catalogues of both are extraordinarily rich and delightfully nuanced, and I admit that I look forward to new work from either artist with as much eagerness now as when I was a young and foolish naïf. In Warehams case, 2021 has given us a physical edition of the set of lockdown covers recorded with Britta Phillips, plus a completely new album in the form of ‘I Have Nothing To Say To The Mayor of L.A.’ There are covers on here too in the form of Scott Walker’s ‘Duchess‘ and the more obscure ‘Under Skys’ originally written and recorded by late-’60s Boston garage-psych band Lazy Smoke. I’m particularly grateful to Wareham for hipping me to the latter, for the sole Lazy Smoke album, 1968’s ‘Corridor of Faces’ is a treasure of drifty psychedelia that fits perfectly into the expanded universe inhabited elsewhere by Luna and Galaxie 500.
The eight originals on the album are none too shabby either, with Warehem casting his net to make songs informed by topics as diverse as 19th Century dandies, 1940’s Hollywood and Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor. Hardly topics typical amongst artists operating across the spectrum of rock music, and one of the reasons of course why Wareham remains special and naturally strange. Not that the record is detached from contemporary concerns, for underpinning it all is a kind of gently simmering anger and frustration with the state of the world. Indeed, this feeling is one that, in hindsight, seems to permeate so many of my favoured records of 2021. Perhaps this is entirely natural, since much of these works are being made by artists at similar points in life to my own and surely none of us really want to hear more songs about teenagers in unrequited love or twenty somethings assuming they are revolutionaries simply because they slapped a snappy slogan on a photograph and shared it on the Interwebs. Not that we may be weary or cynical or nothin’…
In truth there has always been the most delicious weary scepticism to Dean Wareham’s work, although that might be more to do with his vocal delivery than anything else. Like Lou Reed, Wareham acknowledges his limitations as a singer and more than makes up for any shortcomings by being a remarkably accomplished vocalist. Take the tremendous, ‘Cashing In’, on which he reflects back on a career of ups, downs, maybe-this-times and almost-tomorrows. In anyone else’s hands such a song could be mistreated and turned into something either brash and arrogant or miserably self-pitying. Wareham however pulls it off with a typically cool poise, somehow managing to tread a line between, or more accurately, far beyond those too extremes. If anyone else has delivered a line as great as “Every fuck was a flying fuck” with anything approaching the same level of stealthy, steely humour then I’ve yet to hear it. This is the sound of a coming-to-terms with a life of success that some would call failure; of failure that some would deem success. It’s the sound of Wareham not giving one of those flying fucks, and thank goodness for that.
It’s the beautifully poignant ‘The Last Word’ that I keep coming back to, however. A song in which Wareham recounts the tale of Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, and her tragic ending defeated and cheated by faithlessness. With a sparse, down-tempo almost bossa-beat it sometimes recalls The Go-Betweens’ ‘When People Are Dead’ although that could just be me projecting connections of loss and melancholy. It’s certainly a curiously apposite tale for our times, however, as Wareham perhaps hints at the sorrow of socialist and feminist ideals still being poisoned by faithless self-interest. Historical social realism as mirror to our times, or something like that.
John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats have featured in three of the last four Unpopular advent series, and 2021’s ‘Dark In Here’ set makes that a neat four from five. This is surely as much a reflection on the staggeringly productive output of artists caught in the groove of their creative processes as it is my predictable tastes. Speaking of which, I think I mentioned earlier in the month something about how my own personal reclamation of time from the black hole of UK state education and subsequent regroupment has allowed me space to expand my horizons and take in some vistas I might previously have missed. Yet if I am ever tempted to allow myself to feel remotely smug about this then I just take a glimpse at Darnielle’s wildly eclectic range of interests and come away, well, humbly diminished and a shade more determined to not be such a lazy dumb ass (or, indeed, arse).
So whilst I have found myself happily seduced by Steely Dan in my later years, Darnielle’s well documented love for Metal in all its various sub-genres continues to baffle me. I’m certain this is all tied up in our various formative years where Metal may, or may not, have formed a decisive/divisive set of neural connections. For me in the hinterlands of the Scottish west coast it was idiot boys in school with their AC/DC badges and denim jackets beating up on my skinny wanna-be Mod arse (or, indeed, ass) and forevermore I’ve been unable to take a Rainbow record seriously. The counter-argument may well be that one is NEVER meant to take a Rainbow record seriously, and that would be fair enough, but what can I tell you? I mean, to quote Trembling Blue Stars as covered by Mountain Goats themselves on the ‘Babylon Springs’ EP, “sometimes I still feel the bruise”…
The only Death Metal band then that I can work up much interest for is that fictional one out of Denton, whilst the only slow parts in their songs that might grab me are the ones in the title of this cut that’s wormed its way onto my advent mix. Maybe in a parallel universe it would sit next to something by Skillet or Masterclass (no, I have no idea, just pulling names out of hats here…) but not in this one. No, not in this one.
Yet it is to The Mountain Goats eternal credit that they should come even remotely close to tempting me into another tentative peek behind that metal-studded curtain. They do so by deploying a cloaking device of Jazz Rock that is as seductive as it is deceptively smooth; as deftly illusory as it is charmingly comforting. Backing vocals slink like Sirens from Silver Age horror comics as we are drawn into a Noir-black hole of 3am 1940s nightclub where the last solitary customers drain a glass of gut-rot whisky and line up to shoot the piano-player. I mean, that’s the core essence of all of this, isn’t it? An escape from our present presence into something figuratively darker. We hover on the edges, secure in our ability to pull back. The darkness we need in order to feel the true glory of the light… Something like this, anyway.
Mention must also be made of the third and fourth chapters of the group’s celebratory ‘Jordan Lake Sessions’ in which The Mountain Goats entertain us from the COVID secure environment of a live studio. One highlight of these latest sets might be the gorgeous fragility of ‘Snow Owl’ from ‘Full Force Galesburg’ whilst a second could be another terrific take on ‘Tallahassee’s’ Tik-Tok favourite ‘No Children’. It’s perhaps the very funny introductory explanation of ‘Jazz No Children’ and the post-performance dialogue between Darnielle and Peter Hughes about setting up a divorce helpline that appeals as much as the song itself though (terrific as it is, of course). Such divine warmth and friendship shines like a beacon in the darkness of our times.
The last instalment of the jangle interlude on this particular Unpopular advent sees the welcome return of The Lodger, whose trio of albums from 2006 to 2010 (‘Grown Ups’, ‘Life Is Sweet’, ‘Flashbacks’) were exemplary collections of chiming Pop that made reference to the most perfect texts. They were Buzzcocks covering Anthony Newly, The Lucksmiths from colder climes. They were Leeds 4, Hull 0.
Their reappearance in 2021 with the super ‘Cul-De-Sac of Love’ set may have been unexpected, but the sound that they make remains every bit as thrilling. Those previous points of reference still stick, but this time around they resonate more softly in the background, as ‘Cul-De-Sac of Love’ shows off an inevitably more mature and complex Lodger. The shiny trill of their earlier records are smoothed off delightfully here, leaving something funkier, slinkier yet still with just enough pointed edges to prick the skin. In many ways it reminds me of the way Davey Henderson went from the discordant disco background music for active lives with Fire Engines to the Super Popoid Groove of Win and then to some kind of fizzing point between the two with Nectarine No. 9. Indeed, there are some tremendous Nectrarine flavoured guitar inserts on the terrific ‘I’m Over This (Get Over It)’, which might explain why it is perhaps my favourite cut on the album.
Elsewhere there are hints of the PopPerfect Wire circa ‘154’ and, more than anything else, the patina of the kind of nostalgic heavenly Pop hits dreamt of by Vic Godard when he was channeling Sinatra at the Club Left. There’s even a tune called ‘Stop That Girl!’ Not that The Lodger sound anything like Subwaysect. That would be too easy. No, The Lodger in their 2021 guise are more a hazy illusive vision of a mid ’80s synthpop infatuated by West Coast Soft Pop. Sophie and Peter Johnston with a bag of Turtles 45s in their bedroom with shelves of Beach Boys bootlegs under posters of Peter Lorimer, perhaps.
The Beach Boys vibe is most clearly heard on the terrific non-album single ‘Bewildered’ and that is the number that makes it into our advent mix. Masquerading as a song about an on/off relationship, I admit I hear it as a dialogue with the self or even simply as an observation of the polarised nature of 21st Century existence, endlessly and destructively arguing with itself. Ben Sidall casts an eye back to the comfort blanket of the Beatles as he sings that “Love isn’t complicated” A phalanx of harmonies caress and cajol him as he adds, resignedly, “we’re just not that smart.”
If The Lodger were an almost forgotten favourite making a welcome return in 2021, then Tigers and Flies were something of a new revelation. An eponymous EP in 2018 was a amusing enough diversion but frankly did little to suggest much more than another pleasant guitar indie band. Just three years on, however, and the change is startling, as Tigers and Flies deliver in ‘Among Everything Else’ an album that is by turns quirky, nervy, assured and endlessly listenable.
In places, most notably on the fabulous ‘Bat And Ball’ it reminds me of nothing less than the mighty Animals That Swim. The same keenly sketched vignettes of social observation. The same sharp burst of horns giving the robust rhythm section and clanging guitars a delicious cloak of warmth. Of course if you wanted a less obtuse reference point then maybe Tigers and Flies are tuned into Blur circa ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’, which is to say when Blur never sounded better. Or The Jam when they were in the throes of a Beat Surrender, or Weller shortly afterwards when The Style Council were shouting to the top. That’s all a shade too lazy, however, for whilst Tigers and Flies might wear influences proudly on sleeves they manage to transcend those points of reverence to emerge from the cocoon of these past three years sounding astonishingly bright and mature.
Having found a home on the Violette label that released Mick Head’s great ‘Adios Pussycat’ set back in 2017 it is perhaps also no surprise to hear a strong Head influence shot through many of the songs on ‘Among Everything Else’. Certainly fans of Pale Fountains and Shack will find much to love here, particularly on numbers like the three minute burst of ‘Headspace’, sparkling single ‘Half’ and the frankly gorgeous five and a half odd minutes of ‘Ben’. Elsewhere, the edgy two minute explosion of ‘In My Skin’ is in the vein of Wolfhounds, Yummy Fur, Hellfire Sermons, Comet Gain, Playwrights, Lets Wrestle, fill-in-your-favourite-here and is a breathless 400 blows to the solar plexus. Perhaps people once thought that Arctic Monkeys sounded this good too, but I really could not say.
What I can say is that in ‘Among Everything Else’ Tigers and Flies have made a record that explodes with flavours that are both exquisitely familiar and deliciously blended to sound fresh and new. It deserves to be heard by an audience immeasurably larger than any to be found in this Unpopular universe.
It’s barely five years since Goon Sax ‘topped’ our advent series but this year the group released their third LP in ‘Mirror II’, and, well, here we are again. In truth, ‘Mirror II’ was the record that slipped in and out of the shortlist for 2021 several times, and I’m still not convinced that it deserves its place here as an album. It feels a shade too piecemeal, too disconnected, as though the ingredients that worked so well together in the past have begun to separate. Specifically, for me, the songs where James Harrison channels Jonathan Richman through the lenses of The Cannanes and McTells may be charmingly awkward and brittle, particularly on the lovely ‘Temples’, but now feel oddly out of kilter with the rest of the record.
That said, when ‘Mirror II’ is good, it is startlingly so. The triumvirate of ‘In The Stone’, ‘Psychic’ and ‘Desire’ are amongst then most memorable tunes of this or any year and it’s no surprise that these are the three originals the group performed in their terrific ‘Live on KEXP at Home’ session. In truth it was those performances that had me revisiting the album later in the year and that convinced me to pull it back from the sizeable reserve list for this year’s advent series.
So if the special chemistry that so obviously exists between the trio might sometimes fizzle into damp squibs, it is true too that when their elements do meet in the right conditions then there are gloriously fizzing reactions that leave intriguing new compounds. And at the risk of labouring the chemistry metaphor, the interplay of Louis Fortster and Riley Jones’ voices in particular is like sprinkling some of that Mystical Fire Dust in the wood-burner and marvelling at the nuances of colour. Mesmerising.
I’ll admit I’m nervous about what their future experiments might bring, but that is all part of the pleasure, isn’t it? Maybe we need a few disappointments to truly be thrilled.
If Goon Sax have given us an album of new pleasures on ‘Mirror II’ then Melbourne’s Quivers have collected some old(ish) favourites with a few newer numbers to make up the terrific ‘Golden Doubt’ set. A summation of their work during the years since 2018’s raw and compelling ‘We’ll Go Riding On The Hearses’ (originally released on cassette, this collection gained wider availability in 2021) it collects tremendous singles ‘Videostores’, ‘When It Breaks’ and ‘You’re Not Always On My Mind’ in slightly revised forms alongside seven other numbers that are every bit as fine.
The ten songs on ‘Golden Doubt’ resonate strongly with the strange desperate need for love and (re)connection after loss; that point where grief gives way to hollowed-out desire, all the time pursued by doubts of self-worth and the haunting question marks around what we may or may not deserve. If that sounds inordinately dark and broody though (I’ve just read it back through, and it does), this is far from the reality of the sound that Quivers make, which is ravishingly joyous. As they point out to us (and themselves?), after all, ‘Nostalgia Will Kill You’.
Now I remember being charmed (devastatingly so) by ‘You’re Not Always On My Mind’ when I first heard it early in 2019 and its brilliance has hardly dimmed through repeated exposure. It is an extraordinary piece of exquisite Pop that delicately balances themes of loss and love on wires taught with anxiety anticipating release. ‘Videostores’, on the other hand, is a gorgeous funeral dirge, moving in a blissed-out state through personal and universal loss. “Now I know the future starts slow. Moving through molasses as you’re walking me home” sings Sam Nicholson, perfectly capturing the hallucinatory qualities of attempts to escape grief and to move on in life.
‘Golden Doubt’ is a treat of a record whose surface sound may be immediately accessible, but it is also one that rewards repeated listening with an emotional depth and subtle complexity. It marks Quivers as ones to watch for sure.