Unpop 176

It was on the 12th of June

Contact – Big Thief (from ‘U.F.O.F.’ LP)
You Let My Tyres Down – Tropical Fuck Storm (from ‘A Laughing Death In Meatspace’ LP. Bandcamp)
Midnight Mist – Witch Hazel (from ‘Otherwordly’ LP. Bandcamp)
Vacation – Sebadoh (from ‘Act Surprised’ LP. Bandcamp)
D.I.S.C.I.P.L.E – Clinic (from ‘Wheeltappers and Shunters’ LP. Bandcamp)
How Far – Sacred Paws (from ‘Run Around The Sun‘ LP)
Don’t Cry For Me, California – Red Sleeping Beauty (from ‘Stockholm’ LP. Bandcamp)
Sun Memory II feat. Rose Berlin – epic45 (from ‘Sun Memory’ EP. Bandcamp)
Haiku – Katherine Johnson – Pam Berry (from ‘One Small Step For Global Pop’ LP. Bandcamp)
Chronostasis – Deerful (from ‘One Small Step For Global Pop’ LP. Bandcamp)
Qui A Su – Gillian Hills (YouTube)
In Your Life – Adam Faith (from ‘Three Day Week: When the Lights Went Out 1972-1975‘ LP)
Within a Dream – trappist afterland (from ‘Insects In Amber’ LP. Bandcamp)
The Dukes of Stratosphear – Ralegh Long (digital single. Bandcamp)
The Postcard – Stephen Duffy (from ‘I Love My Friends‘ LP)
The Dystopian Days of Yore – Monnone Alone (from ‘Summer Of The Mosquito’ LP. Bandcamp)
What Was That Sound? – Theatre Royal (from ‘Singles 2010-2018’ LP. Bandcamp)
Light Bending – The Claim (from ‘The New Industrial Ballads’ LP. Bandcamp)
Waylon Jennings Live! – The Mountain Goats (from ‘In League With Dragons‘ LP)
Technicolor Summer Sunshine – Paul Den Heyer (from ‘Everything So Far’ LP. Bandcamp)
There Goes My Miracle – Bruce Springsteen (from ‘Western Stars‘ LP)
Devil May Care – Son Volt (from ‘Union‘ LP)
After the Sunrise – The Grip Weeds (from ‘Trip Around The Sun‘ LP)
Heavenly Day – Peter Perrett (from ‘Humanworld’ LP)
If That’s Alright – Uncle Tupelo (from ‘Still Feel Gone’ LP)

I felt like a teenager out on a date

Partial playlist on The Spotify

Full playlist on The Mixcloud

This and That

There are barely twenty five people in the room, whose walls are decorated by randomly hung paintings and other decorative art forms, each firmly within the genre of what, in a heartless moment of dismissive judgement, I might term #earthyhippieamateurnonsense. With a hashtag because it’s the twenty first century and we are driven by its drum, aren’t we? The art is the kind of thing I remember seeing on the walls of Exeter’s legendary vegetarian restaurant Herbies back in the early nineteen nineties. I could well believe some of the pictures had been there for a decade or more when I saw them and could well believe that they adorn the walls still, casting an ageless aura of… what? Regret? Loneliness? Isolation? Inner peace and self-assuredness?

Perhaps I am a harsh judge of visual arts (though I suspect my friend Rupert, who I catch up with for the first time in far too long, would consider my judgements to be overly positive) but perhaps this is because it is a form I understand (to a degree). Perhaps if I were a musician, or if I understood the practicalities of making music, then I might be equally dismissive of the sounds that permeate the space throughout the evening. But I don’t, and I’m not, for most of the noises seem otherworldly, mesmerising and strange. Not quite strange enough perhaps for Rupert, whose tastes, whilst overlapping with my own, have always largely veered more towards the more, ah, ‘difficult’ end of the weirdshire spectrum, but in the context of a small room in the depths of Cornwall, certainly strange enough to be going on with.

The Diamond Family Archive. Photography by Sharon Aston.

Laurence Collyer hails from around Totnes (of course he does) and records and performs as The Diamond Family Archive. Subsequent exploration tells me that he sometimes performs and records with other musicians but tonight it is just Laurence accompanied by a few instruments, a small electronic box and a shallow wooden drawer full of effects pedals. The drawer is dusted at the edges with cobwebs, as though it has just been pulled out of a magikal map-chest in a shed, and whilst this might be a carefully designed piece of artifice it certainly is a useful piece in the puzzle where The Diamond Family Archive constructs itself before our eyes and ears as a audiological collage of creaks, cracks, loops and luxurious textures. It’s the noise of a madcap laughing, perhaps, but a noise where the tendrils knowingly draw themselves out to recognisable touchstones of drone, traditional folk and lyrical narrative. The collage aspect is important, for these are sonic constructions that are simultaneously abrupt (loops are created like tearing paper, source material seen upside down to remove obvious visual reference) and sensitive (loops interweave, each giving the other a breathing space). Indeed, this talk of collage reminds me of Alan Davidson’s Kitchen Cynics and of Davidson and Gayle Brogan’s collaborations as Barrett’s Dottled Beauty and of course these are concrete connections in this imagined landscape of the illusory. I had not heard (of) The Diamond Family Archive before tonight but I will certainly be hearing more in the future.

Alula Down. Photography by Sharon Aston.

It’s only after seeing Alula Down perform that I realise I will have heard them before on the Weirdshire 2 compilation that I enjoyed greatly a year or two ago. In another of those strange coincidences that are not coincidences at all, whilst I listen to Alula Down perform I am minded of some of Alison Cotton’s solo work and of course there is an Alison Cotton (with Michael Tanner aka Plinth) cut on that same compilation. Alula Down too it seems are part of the Sproatly Smith collective and the Weirdshire scene out in what I admit I think of as the dark depths of Herefordshire, inhabiting the same magikal landscapes as the fictional presences in Phil Rickman’s novels. Indeed, upon subsequent meandering down avenues I discover that on volume 1 of the Weirdshire compilation series there nestles a tune by Lol Robinson and Hazy Jane II. Now I imagine that Jane Watkins is a fan of Sproatly Smith too, and rightly so. They even made a record called Thomas Traherne in 2014, which would have been the time I was first discovering Merrily’s world. As we are apt to say, it all fits.

On record Alula Down are delicate and dreamlike, quite clearly connected to established folk traditions. This is all fine, and their beautifully packaged Hopedowns set (in a little cardboard box with a pressed flower nestled inside next to the CD) is certainly well worth tracking down. Yet in a live context they manage to push the strangeness further, opening fissures in the aural landscape from which they tease threads of illusory pastoral calm. Birds sing somewhere to the left middle distance; amplified acoustic guitar feedback whines a mournful call; Kate Gathercole’s voice drifts to the centre, a wraith balanced on butterfly wings, just so. I believe some call the call of the Weirdshire sound ‘avant-folk’. If so, then whilst on record Alula Down feel more distinctly rooted in folk, performing live they are assuredly avant.

Trappist Afterland. Photography by Sharon Aston.

Elsewhere in my archives I have noted about how I was completely unaware of the Trappist Afterland records until my friend Phil tempted me to the depths of Totnes in April 2018 for a night of psych-folk (or folk-psych) wonder. Since then I have listened extensively and repeatedly and yet would still struggle to explain exactly what it is about Adam Geoffrey Coles’ songs and recordings that I find so captivating. Like the rest of this night’s music, it comes in from the very edges of my interests (musical, cultural, spiritual) and seems almost opaquely impenetrable. There is a denseness about much of this music that I find enormously appealing; a denseness that feels as though it hovers on the brink of consciousness; a denseness whose claustrophobic repetition is eased only by a lightness of touch that rests on our ears as though from sunlight glimpsed through the forest canopy. If there is an earthiness to this music it is an earthiness that does not need to use such irrelevant notions such as ‘authenticity’. We all know there is no such thing. There is only this and there is only that and sometimes the two are one. Perhaps this is the entire point. Perhaps it is this yearning for one-ness that underpins all. Certainly I hear it in the short set of gems Adam and his accompanying guitarist collaborator for the evening perform for us as Trappist Afterland. One by one they drip and merge into one rock pool of mesmerising psych(ik) reflection.

There are barely twenty five people in the room whose walls fade to irrelevance even as they contain the presence of something other. Out There is rain and darkening clouds. Out There is what feels like an eternity of irreconcilable difference and fundamental division. In Here is a warmth and an ageless spirit of, not defiance exactly, but selective disconnectedness. Out There exists but In Here is reality. Upside down, inside out. There is only that and there is only this and sometimes the two are one.

Unpop 175

It never hurts to give thanks to the navigator

May 9th – Will Burns & Hannah Peel (from ‘Chalk Hill Blue’ LP)
Brambles of Dourlens – Bess of Bedlam (from ‘Folly Tales‘ LP)
Conditions – Rozi Plain (from ‘What A Boost‘ LP)
Wordlessly – Rose Elinor Dougall (from ‘A New Illusion‘ LP)
Aerosol – Patience (from ‘Dizzy Spells’ LP. Bandcamp)
Progress – The Shining Levels (from ‘The Gallows Pole‘ LP)
Ray C – Sweet Whirl (from ‘Love Songs and Poetry‘ EP)
Opus 18 – Vic Godard (from ‘Mum’s Revenge’ LP. Bandcamp)
Am I Losing You – Memory Fade (from ‘She Loves The Birds’ EP. Bandcamp)
In the Capital – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever (7″ single. Bandcamp)
I Wanna – Mammoth Penguins (from ‘There’s No Fight We Can’t Both Win’ LP. Bandcamp)
Mini Was a Preteen Arsonist – Martha (from ‘Love Keeps Kicking’ LP. Bandcamp)
Younger – The Mountain Goats (from ‘In League With Dragons‘ LP)
The Bluebell Wood – The Wild Swans (from ‘The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years’ LP. Bandcamp)
Hello Sunshine – Bruce Springsteen (from ‘Western Stars‘ LP)
Live Till You Die – Emitt Rhodes (from ‘Emitt Rhodes’ LP. YouTube)
Live – The Bangles (from ‘All Over The Place’ LP. YouTube)
The Conversation – Sacred Paws (from ‘Run Around The Sun‘ LP)
Red Sleeping Beauty – Red Sleeping Beauty (from ‘Stockholm‘ LP)
Ping Pong – Stereolab (from ‘Mars Audiac Quintet‘ LP)
Pinch Disco – El Valerie (from ‘Electro Pampas’ LP. Bandcamp)
Weight of the Planets – Aldous Harding (from ‘Designer‘ LP)

All my kingdom for a moment more

partial playlist on The Spotify

The past may not have passed.

A student stops me in the corridor and asks if I remember some vaguely familiar name. As I nod in a distracted manner I’m informed that aforementioned name is this child’s mother. On parent’s evening a father who also seems oddly familiar appears in front of me and as I somewhat unkindly think of how the years have not treated him so well I wonder what on earth he’s thinking about me, still stuck here twenty years after he left. As teachers we accept that such moments are the inevitable reminders that we are Getting Old, but what kinds of triggers perform this function for everyone else? Policemen looking like they are twelve is undoubtedly one of them, closely followed by the now regular occurrence of 30 and 40 year reissues of records we bought when we were a mere slip of a thing. Ouch. So, thirty years since ‘Boomy Tella’ by The Claim was first released? Surely some mistake officer. And are you quite certain you are old enough to be carrying that side arm?

Christian reminds us that the past is a foreign country we wouldn’t much want to be reminded of, let alone visit, and yet like him this record by The Claim is one blip of history I’m quite happy to welcome back into my life. Not so much for memories of this, that or the other (though there are a few of those) but for the realisation that, when all those explicitly personal meanings and connections are removed from the frame (or as much as that is possible), it really does sound like a terrific record; a record that I like to think, had it been made in 2019 by a bunch of stringy kids from the suburbs, would be making me itch and dance inside like a fevered wraith.

I have resisted looking back in old fanzines to see what kinds of words and phrases I used to describe The Claim and ‘Boomy Tella’ at the time of its release. I have resisted the temptation to see what reference points I threw in. That said, I am certain I would have made more than passing reference to The Kinks and yes, the need to do so again is strong for the sounds of The Claim are certainly very much in line with the noise made by those Muswell Hillbillies, particularly on those ‘Kontroversy’ recordings where they simultaneously snarled, sneered and strangely soothed. And to go off an a tangent, remember how Sleater Kinney neatly nodded to the cover of the ‘Kink Kontroversy’ for their ‘Dig Me Out’ set? Well I’m going to be cheeky and suggest that there is something of The Claim in The Kinney; something in the way noises they create(d) are sweet sensations of controlled aggression tempered by a deeply held concern for humanity. Well what’s so funny about peace, love and understanding after all? Yeah, yeah yeah. Which is to say too that there’s something of Brinsley Shwartz and that energised pub-rock pre-punk tension in ‘Boomy Tella’ too and if I did not spot that on first release then it says more about my less-than-complete musical/cultural knowledge than anything else. If I’d told me that then of course I’d have laughed in my face and said something fatuous about Missing The Point Entirely. I’d have been wrong and I’d have been right. And vice-versa.

Christian is certainly right when he says that ‘Boomy Tella’ is up there with the best when it comes to the perfect way to open a record. I am sure I’d have said the same in those shrouded mists of history, probably throwing in some connection to ‘Waterloo Sunset’. It’s not just that perfectly pitched opening line about being wayward and cynical (I’ve lost track of the number of times I have thrown that reference into words I’ve written about any number of topics down these past thirty years) but it’s also in the way the song seems to snap you instantly to attention, secure in it’s self-assurance yet never aggrandising. No, never that.

Didn’t we talk in the past about lineage from The Kinks through Vic Godard to The Claim? As I say, many things from the/my past are intentionally obscured like Rauschenberg’s erased De Kooning drawing but that concept is one that refuses to drop. The Godard point is particularly pertinent, for there is certainly something of Godard’s eloquent use of the English language in the context of Pop within lines like “When the leaves of hope are looking sombre, don’t brush them aside, they’re needing gathering up and nurtured for a rainy day”. Chasing this chimera of content, indeed. There’s certainly too a Subway Sect current to much of the noise of ‘Boomy Tella’, which strangely now sounds more angular and sharply grazed than I remember. I even listened again to my original Esurient record to make sure it wasn’t something in re-mastering or pressing (things which I would never in a million years understand) but no, there it is: evidence that it’s my mis-remembered perceptions of the past clouding up the moment. Which is fine. As is the nudge of reminder to dig out and delight in those Godard discs from the past thirty years. It is tempting in idle moments to wonder what records The Claim might have gone on to make in those same thirty years had ‘Boomy Tella’ not slipped almost immediately into semi-obscurity (a perfect storm of failures in distribution service colliding with changes in cultural fashions within music) and certainly one strongly suspects they would have made records as equally terrific as, say, ‘The End Of The Surrey People’ or ‘Sansend’.

Thankfully all is not lost, and whilst recent experiments in quantum physics might suggest that the past has not in fact passed, the re-emergence of ‘Boomy Tella’ alongside the first new recordings by The Claim in nearly three decades appear to bear this out. Certainly the early indications are that ‘The New Industrial Ballads’ set (out on the re-ignited A Turntable Friend label in May) will be one that inevitably nods backwards to the glorious jambalaya of references held within ‘Boomy Tella’ whilst acknowledging present and potential futures. Edges may have been gently rounded, but The Claim still sound sharp and angry yet yes, with that same deeply rooted concern and love for humanity intact (if inevitably somewhat bruised). In what feels like a time of limited positives in the world, that’s got to be worth something.

Being wayward and cynical.

I was 18 when Boomy Tella first came out. It felt important then, it is still important now. There are a limited number of great pop albums and this is one of them. None of the songs extend beyond 4 minutes, many are under three. There are no guitar solos, there is no ‘stretching out’, no noodling, no filler. These things are important. Say what you want and then stop. Think ‘I just can’t stop it’, ‘I am a wallet’, ‘Two sevens clash’, ‘Meat is murder’, ‘Born this way’ and ‘Ping pong’.

Great albums always have a great opening song and ‘Not so simple Sharon says’ is just that. It sets the tone and you want to hear what comes next. Great songs always have a great opening line and ‘Being wayward and cynical never left a lasting impression on her lonely heart’ is up there with some of the best: “Hand in glove, the sun shines out of our behinds”; “When this old world starts getting me down and people are just too much for me to face…”; “You spurn my natural emotions, you make me feel I’m dirt and I’m hurt.”

Nothing is deliberately obscure or difficult but there is an air of mystery and surprise. I still don’t know if ‘Love letter’ is sung from a spurned male or female point of view, the trombone and laughter in ‘Beneath the reach’ suddenly appear but just seem to fit and the party which starts in the background of ‘Las Regas El Resoto’ is like an abrupt left turn down a tiny side street. But it works. The words are clear and articulate but leave gaps for you to fill in. These are no themes, and nothing is in your face. ‘Mrs Shepherd’ seems to be about a pompous and high-handed moralist whose daughter turns out to be a lesbian, ‘Down by the chimney’ perhaps about someone’s loss of innocence. The music is angular and yet melodic. ‘Not so simple Sharon says’ has a hook so catchy it is one of those tunes you would recognise within a second or two if it ever happened to be on the radio. It’s familiar but you can’t pin it down. As John Peel said of someone more famous – it’s not immediately possible to tell what they have been listening to. Labelling this as ‘mod’ or using the term ‘mod band’ feels reductive and dismissive. For me, this is an album that deserves more than that.

1988 was a long time ago and the past is a country I don’t much want to visit. But this is a great record and it is nice to have it back.

Christian Jones.

Buy the reissued ‘Boomy Tella’ on vinyl, CD or download via Bandcamp

“I don’t know dude.” Or: the creative process unpacked

Several musician friends this morning retweeted the above thought by Mitski. I’ve enjoyed some of Mitski’s records (last year’s ‘Be the Cowboy’ had some great moments and often put me in mind of Jens Lekman) but I found the tweet even more interesting: “every song i write feels like the last song I’ll ever write, and the moment it’s done I fully forget how I did any of it lol. if artists were fully honest in interviews half our answers to Qs about “process” would probably be “i don’t know dude””. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is the reference to process that interests me, or more specifically the explanation of process. This is something our students are expected to do as part of their art/photography GCSE and it is always one of the most difficult things for them to do. The phrase I keep using in class is “you need to tell the examiner what’s going on inside your head” and I’m always intrigued by the differing degrees of response to this. Some are able to unpack that thinking process fairly well (I model it all the time when we do one to one tutorial sessions) but other just don’t seem able to do it at all. Of course this is all tied into metacognition and we know from research that metacognition is perhaps the ‘strategy’ that has the single most positive impact on learning.

Now I understand artists’ wish to keep the secrets of their creative processes hidden because it maintains the mystery and magic and it may be that Mitski is being somewhat disingenuous with this tweet because I really believe that if someone asked the correct questions (‘tell me about your creative process’ is rarely a question that will get you to that answer) she would have some really interesting insights into what happens. Mitski might genuinely feel she ‘forgets’ how she has written any one song but the ‘secrets’ of that process are clearly woven into her neural pathways. She does know, but she seems to be telling herself (or us) that she doesn’t. Perhaps this is a self-preservation mode kicking in or perhaps it is, as I said, a somewhat disingenuous dodging of the issue in order to maintain the mystery.

This is fine because as an artist you don’t have any exams to pass where someone is going to judge you on your ability to explain your creative processes, but from an educational perspective it is critical. It brings to mind a research project I did around 20 years ago (when funding still existed to facilitate such things) exploring the creative process within film editing. My findings from that project were largely around unpacking the creative process and debunking the notion of creativity as some innate skill or ‘gift’ and this has driven much of my own thinking (and practice) in education in the intervening years. My favourite phrase for a time (apologies to the colleagues who must have wearied of hearing it) was “the creative process is the learning process and vice-versa” and an intrinsic part of that creative process is that very metacognition that we know leads to progress. Mitski might want to think about that if she ever needs to pass a GCSE in art..

What Not To Do

Breakfast reading for the past six months or has been The Atlantic Monthly magazine. This is attempt to both keep brain active and also avoid reading in any depth about Brexit and British Problems which all UK journals appear to be (probably) rightly obsessed with and which (probably) wrongly I have a desperate desire to avoid. Over toast (locally sourced sourdough, naturally) and coffee (black, naturally) I delved into article titled ‘Yes, America Can Still Lead The World’ (cheekily provocative title) wherein I was struck by a quote from Harvard economics professor Michael Porter who has apparently said that “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” Immediately struck dumb by apparent obviousness of statement, resonance with what I’ve been saying for the past couple of years in leadership meetings (colleagues no doubt bored to tears by my constant refrain of ‘yes, but if we do that what are we Not Going To Do?’) and deceptive difficulty in carrying through on aforementioned quote.

By some strange quirk of coincidence this quote is read the day after teaching year 9 about notions of interdependence, for I think it is this idea of interdependence that is central to Porter’s observation. For if strategy is too complex, too convoluted, then surely this creates more opportunities for errors? Complex strategy that focuses exclusively on Things We Are Going To Do runs the risk of failing to predict the interactions of the multiple strategy actions we put in place. Better surely to say “we will do this, and by doing this it means we cannot/should not do that because if we do This AND That it will potentially cause The Other (where The Other is something unpleasant and counter-productive to the aim of the strategy)”.

What does this have to do with education? Well, a lot I think. One example would be the battle against The Content. A bad strategy would be predicated on all the students having to get through all the content regardless, whilst a good strategy would be predicated on ensuring students are securing knowledge before moving onto the next piece of content. In this instance the strategy of choosing What Not To Do is inherent in that decision to be prepared to possibly/probably/definitely not cover all of the content. Again, this is much easier to say/write than to do in practice, particularly for heavily knowledge based subjects and teachers who may be very Set In Their Ways (the words pot black and kettle spring to mind here to which I plead Guilty As Charged).

Another example might be around assessment/marking strategies and teacher workload. If a school leaders’ strategy is to lessen workload (and it possibly/probably/definitely should be) by implementing less frequent but still effective assessment schedules then it is in the interests of everyone to clearly communicate What Not To Do (e.g. DO NOT mark every piece of work, DO NOT mark every line of every piece of work etc). Focus of monitoring/EQ procedures could similarly align with this consideration of What Not To Do and be predicated on nudging colleagues away from those practices and into thoughts on What To Do With All That Gained Time! Strategies for which might include Reading The Atlantic Monthly magazine over breakfast. Well, it’s a thought, right?