Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 9

Amy Rigby – The Old Guys

Isn’t it interesting how things that are ostensibly within one’s galaxy of interest can nevertheless exist completely outside of the orbit of one’s awareness? So it is with Amy Rigby, whose solo records from the 1990s and early noughties really ought to have come onto my radar yet somehow didn’t. Ditto the albums made in more recent years with (husband) Wreckless Eric. Well, I say ‘recent’ for it has been six years since the last of those collaborations, but six years is both a lifetime and nothing at all when you are of this age.

‘The Old Guys’ then has been my first exposure to Rigby and whilst it certainly has had me scurrying back to uncover her earlier records, none have impressed me as much as this. For here, alongside what I now recognise as her trademark gift with a lyric, is what feels like a more robust and confident structure to songs and their sonic substance. But whilst it is a record rooted in what history might encourage us to call a masculine tradition of rock’n’roll, ‘The Old Guys’ is by turns funny, tender and yes, a record that isn’t afraid to call history out on that definition. One thing clear from listening to all of Rigby’s records (and a major pleasures of 2018 has been digging into those previous releases) is the sense of immersion in the cultural history of the music she is making. It comes over in the lyrics of course, notably in some of the song title references on ‘The Old Guys’ to Philip Roth, Bob Dylan and Robert Altman but it comes through too in the very fabric of the songs. These songs are threaded with knowledge and love. And incidentally, remember we were talking about Tom Petty and how it is only when artists die now that we really seem to make the opportunities to re-acquaint and re-connect with their treasures? Well Amy kinda riffs on that on the terrific ‘Tom Petty Karaoke’ which itself was inspired by seeing that video of J Mascis singing Tom Petty at, uh, a Karaoke bar and since we are on that riff ourselves let’s take in that Dinosaur Jr. cover of ‘Change of Heart’ whilst we’re here.

It’s the title track of ‘The Old Guys’ that I return to again and again, however. At its core it is the song that calls out history on its insistence on a masculine definition of rock’n’roll yet is also a song that celebrates the very things it despises; a song that simultaneously critiques the misogynist Rock culture whilst acknowledging her/our own complicit place in extending it (“keep laying tracks for the young ones to jump from”). Lyrically, Rigby seldom holds back, and there are some delicious moments in ‘The Old Guys’, notably early on when Rigby makes a dig at what I take to be the notion that as a woman in a male world, the most she could ever hope for is Not Very Much (“I set my sights for the middle, or somewhere below” followed by the barely concealed contempt of “say “Thanks for that” to the old guys”). Yet whilst she hardly pulls punches she does often dust the gloves with a wry humour. So inside those gloves are Robert Mitchum’s knuckles in ‘Night Of The Hunter’, Love and Hate combined in one simply complex relationship. There is something too in the way that the second half of the song is almost entirely bereft of lyrics, rotating in on itself in a cacophony of guitars that caterwaul against each other in a glorious dance of euphoric despair. It’s as if the song reaches a point where, point made, it can only jettison lyrical meaning and enter the realm of emotional response. It was that, now it is this. And this. And this. Tension and tease, confinement and escape into noise. Bliss.

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 8

Buffalo Tom – Quiet and Peace

Buffalo Tom were once vitally important to me. Their eponymous debut scratched me violently on release with its controlled wildness, its curious combinations of Power Pop tunefulness caked in earthy Rock’n’Roll primacy and a melancholic Americana poignancy that appeared to amount to significantly more than the sum of its parts. I swear to God that ‘The Bus’ can still make me shed a tear whilst ‘Impossible’ remains perhaps J Mascis’ finest recorded moment.

It pains me somewhat to say then that Buffalo Tom fell somewhat out of my favour and in hindsight the only explanation I can give is that we moved apart musically, culturally, whatever. Such an excuse is partly to hide the crippling knee-jerk response of disclaiming interest in a particular thing when ‘popularity’ (always, one suspects, rather relative when discussing anything that appeals to the Unpopular tastebuds) threatens. The flipside of which is of course the pleasure of revisiting those things in later years when such bizarre notions of ‘coolness’ have long since evaporated. Which means that I have for some years now been able to tell anyone who might listen that yes, ‘Let Me Come Over’ really was a terrific album and that ‘Taillights Fade’ maybe was one of the finest songs of the era.

Listening to ‘Quiet and Peace’ in 2018 then I am struck by just how fine a group Buffalo Tom sound in the here and now. There are threads of commonality to previous records of course, but ‘Quiet and Peace’ does sound like something newer, fresher and as warming as one might expect from a group who have not spent the seven years since their last record in each others’ pockets. Two cover versions (one on the original vinyl record, one a ‘bonus’ track on CD and download) really set the two opposite reference points for the album. Their take on The Who’s ‘Seeker’ is punchy, dynamic and entirely appropriate whilst the version of Paul Simon’s ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’ is plaintive, beguiling and infused with nods to the American Country Folk tradition that has long filtered into Buffalo Tom’s music. It’s the song that marks the gentler end of ‘Quiet and Peace’ and indeed ‘gentle’ is a key word here for even when Buffalo Tom thrash guitars and layer sonic waterfalls of power they always, at their core, sound gentle and pure. Remember what we were saying (and continue to say) about being soft yet strong?

This time around then it is for me those songs that most explicitly tap into a folk tradition that most appeal. Specifically this means that it is invariably the songs that Chris Colbourne sings which win for me. On cuts such as the power-popping ‘Roman Cars’ and the (bonus) beautiful, downbeat ‘Saturday’ with its line about “hair like Brian Jones” Colbourne reminds me so strongly of Stephen Duffy it is uncanny. His songs musically too are tinged with very much the same kind of folkie tints that The Lilac Time have employed to such effect throughout the decades, never more so than on the wonderful ‘Hemlock’.

Like ‘The Bus’ I suspect that ‘Hemlock’ will continue to haunt me down the years to come for it is very much a song that mines a rich seam of mediated memory. It is there in the explicit lyrical reference to being seventeen and “like a picture in a magazine”, and it is further rooted specifically in time with “’Ocean Rain’ in our ears”. Not a Bunnymen fan? No problem, for throughout the song a softly oscillating keyboard drone drifts in and out like the tides, often invisible but in the end there it is shefallying like Kerouac’s Pacific. Time, seas, or the sound of a record pressed just off centre and shifting in pitch just so as it revolves, creating new and personal meaning. The physical melds with the imaginary and we recreate nowness out of then-ness, here out of there, inside out of out.

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 7

Trappist Afterland – Se(VII)en

Trappist Afterland is not a name I was familiar with before 2018 and in truth would likely have completely passed me by if it were not for one of those serendipitous moments of occasionally converging interests combining in a wrinkle of time. So to Totnes on an Easter holiday evening, to a show promoted by a teenage fanzine writer (the sometimes intriguing Moof that dabbles in all things psych-tinted) in a room populated variously by youthful tripping hip(pie)sters, ageing hippie travellers (in time, in space, even in the physical world) and middle aged indie (no longer)kids (me and my friend Phil). None of these descriptions, incidentally, are meant pejoratively but rather in a warmly self-mocking manner. For if we cannot laugh out ourselves and the statements we make both explicit and implicit, then what on earth can we laugh at? It is only music after all.

On that evening then Trappist Afterland were something of a revelation, bridging the realms of pre-recordings and live performance with a peculiarly organic sense of improvised response within an oddly rigid structure. The same kind of uncertainty exists in the Trappist Afterland recordings for they each appear to adhere to their own sets of rules, each deeply rooted within the tropes of mystical folk music yet somehow sounding intriguingly contemporary. ‘Se(VII)en’ fits neatly into this carefully constructed mystical landscape as another element in song writer and multi-instrumentalist Adam Cole’s increasingly extended universe (being, as far as one can tell, the eighth release since 2012). Cole calls ‘Se(VII)en’ a collection of Gnostic folk songs and in truth they sound almost exactly as one might expect from such a description.

Choosing a single song from ‘Se(VII)en’, or indeed from any Trappist Afterland record then is difficult because there really is only one song. If you read that and see a criticism them in all likelihood you will not appreciate Trappist Afterland and that is fine of course. You may be the kind of person who does not see the beauty in a room of Rothko paintings, seeing only similarity and not difference within a deceptively simple structure. That is also fine.

After much vacillation then I opt to illustrate ‘Se(VII)en’ with penultimate track ‘Forest Mass’. It is a track that continues a thread common to several on the record by being tied to imagery of wood, forest, trees (‘The Blood In The Wood’, ‘Knot In The Wood’, ‘Elm and Bracken’, ‘Trace Your Root’). Todd Hido’s photographs of an impending darkness were referenced a few days ago as part of the rumination on Whyte Horses’ ‘Fake Protest Song’ and they feel appropriate again as a touching and jumping off point for much of ‘Se(VII)en’ and in particular ‘Forest Mass’. There is in both a deep connection to the earth although perhaps coming from almost opposite aesthetic directions. For where Hido’s photographs are almost epic, polished in execution and most definitely Modern, Trappist Afterland and ‘Forest Mass’ instead invoke the Medieval. Both, it must be said, anticipate an approaching Dark Age; Hido by gazing forwards and Trappist Afterland by casting back. If it is a somewhat discomfiting viewpoint then so be it, for these are not entirely enlightened and enlightening times after all.

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 6

Whyte Horses – Empty Words

Idly perusing others’ reviews of the Whyte Horses album it strikes me that almost all have fallen into the trap of using the dreaded ‘p’ word to describe the music. Hell, I’ve been guilty myself in the past, and not just when talking about the various episodes in the timeline of Dom Thomas’ always intriguing and exciting project. And so, as I start to say something about ‘Empty Words’ I set myself the challenge of not using the ‘p’ word. Either of them.

Let me start by admitting that I know next to nothing of the most ‘famous’ vocalists on ‘Empty Horses’, both La Roux and Melanie Pain being people I am familiar with by name only (and Pain only in the sense that I have heard of the Nouvelle Vague group). I could not swear that I have ever heard either singing on their own records and in truth hearing them on ‘Empty Horses’ has not had me scurrying to investigate further. Perhaps this is merely my perverse elitism at play but I prefer to suggest it is because neither Pain nor La Roux sound like ‘guests’ on this record. Rather they sound like established members of the one group, so well positioned do they appear. It is the same with the other vocalists Audrey Pic and Leonore Wheatley, both of whom I am much more familiar with through their work as members of the groups Envelopes and Soundcarriers. Indeed, it is Envelopes and their Francophile Swedish confections that Whyte Horses most closely resemble across ‘Empty Words’, for the record is filled with songs that could slip neatly into the company of great Swedish groups like Concetes, The Embassy (whose own ‘White Lake’ has tragically arrived just too late to make my advent list) or pretty much any of those great groups on the Labrador label. One also rather wonders if Dom Thomas tried to get Robyn to sing on ‘Empty Words’. That would surely have been a treat.

Soundcarriers too are a useful reference point in that the threads of interest in repetition and Sterolab-infused motorik rhythm are audible here also. Always, however, in subtle and sensitive ways. ‘Empty Words’ is no slavish reproduction of sounds and records of influence but rather an effective re-imagined collage. The joins are smoother and less clearly defined than on the first Whyte Horses album but this is no great criticism, for in some ways ‘Empty Words’ puts me in mind of when Scritti Politti moved from scratchy post-punk cultural critics to glossy smooth purveyors of commercial sweetness and there was nothing wrong with that after all. Of course it is entirely possible that songs from ‘Empty Words’ may have stormed the Real Music Charts in 2018 and that I have been blissfully unaware, so out of touch with such worlds have I been for the past few decades. This is no snobbish boast incidentally, just A Matter Of Fact. Did ’The Best Of It’ figure in the Top 40 rundown? Do they even have a Top 40 rundown any longer?

Certainly ‘Fake Protest Song’ features in my own Top 24 run down, as evidenced by this advent entry. It’s the song that makes a concrete connection to the first LP by featuring again the St. Barts School Choir. One rather assumes it is different voices (such is the nature of schools) yet there is a familiarity, a timelessness (such is the nature of a choir) that is both heartening and depressing. Heartening in that there are few things more naturally optimistic than children’s voices raised in song; depressing in that although there are changes, nothing much actually changes. This fits the mood of the song perfectly, for it is as a plaintive, vaguely optimistic (yet oddly mournful) plea to close the song that the children sing “Don’t follow me, we can be free”. This follows a section where the choir sings about “natural light” “shining so pure” and if it could be construed as a bit crass and obviously quasi-religious iconography, it nevertheless fits rather well as a conclusion to a song that roots itself sonically in traditions of ‘60s folk-rock protest song whilst simultaneously mocking both the tropes of that tradition and the manner in which contemporary ‘protest’ so often embraces the very tools and techniques used by those they ostensibly oppose. The song senses that in a world apparently trapped in an endless cycle of protest and counter-protest, a world of alligments built around ever diverging opposites, there appears to be no real opportunity to express disillusionment other than in forming another fractured following built around a tenuous notion of a shared identity. All this pressure to ‘identify’ as this, that or the other, all of it forming barriers and distance. Smallness, quietness, intimate calm is no longer an option and it is this that these gently plaintive children’s voices seem to be mourning most.

It feels odd to be concluding a piece about a largely euphoric and technicolor record on such a downbeat note, but perhaps it is entirely fitting, for Dom Thomas’ project is nothing if not a glorious contemporary evocation of past and future references. And if, as Todd Hido’s recent ‘Bright Black World’ photographs suggest, we are collectively marching into darkness and despair then perhaps we can at least do so with some glamorous songs in our hearts.

And at least I didn’t mention the ‘p’ word.

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 5

Tracey Thorn – Record

Let me start by saying that I find it impossible to be objective about Tracey Thorn, so vital a part of my most formative musical experience has she been. ‘A Distant Shore’ is a record that more than any other defines a moment in (my) life where the swirling elements of end-of-teenage-hysteria coalesced into a defining consciousness. The planets aligned, and baby, the stars shone bright.

Falling in love with Tracy and Ben via their Cherry Red solo endeavours and their Everything But The Girl collaborations was as much about defining what I knew I was not as knowing what I was. Here was music that explicitly and implicitly acknowledged the feminine, music that challenged the expectations of machismo I sensed around me and that I struggled to fit in with. Hurrah! captured it best perhaps when they sang about feeling so strong but looking so weak and this was infused within in all of those records. Later, didn’t Saint Etienne sing about being soft yet strong and didn’t we make the same claims for some of the writing of Pelecanos as an inverted example of the same idea?

One rather senses this notion of ‘I am this and not that’ was invaluable to Tracey Thorn through those early years in particular, although one also suspects that she would embrace the idea that part of the delight of ageing is in opening those very barriers that keep us safe in our youth. I think this comes across in ‘Record’ which is, after all, something of an autobiographical record of her own journey (which she has also magically documented in the glorious ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’ and to a lesser, but no less wonderful extent in ’Naked at the Albert Hall’). It’s not necessarily that growing older opens more avenues to explore (and I’ve seen many who just stop opening the doors at all), it’s just that it perhaps illuminates intriguing pathways that our younger selves would have insisted upon avoiding (and for a whole myriad of reasons that no doubt made perfect sense at the time). What I notice more and more is that often the records and books I enjoy most at 52 are exactly the kinds of things my younger self would have found wildly uninteresting at best, or outlandishly repellent at worst. Several friends have said the same thing and all of us find it rather liberating, hilarious and entirely RIGHT.

All of which means that if you had told my late teenage self that in 35 years time he’d be loving a new Tracey Thorn album IN THE DISCO IDIOM he’d have thought you insane and doubtless made some disparaging comment about Thorn being a traitor to her roots, soul, art blah blah blah. And then he’d have photocopied such nonsense in a tatty fanzine for 25 of his friends to read.

With such hindsight, no?

So here we are, thirty five years on from that imaginary time-travelling conversation and yes, Tracey Thorn has made one of my favourite records of 2018 IN THE DISCO IDIOM. And gosh, who’d have thought we’d be saying it but here goes: Tracey Thorn is a National Treasure. She’s been on Desert Island Discs, so it must be so.

Tracey Thorn is a National Treasure and ‘Record’ is an inestimable pleasure (for the most part). ‘Queen’ is a stomping Disco flash of sliding-doors what-ifs and maybes (there’s the element of the time travel alternative universe at play here too). ‘Guitar’ is a bitter/sweet, hilarious/infuriating memoir/critique of the masculine ownership of the Rock realm. ’Sister’ is a diatribe on that same male-dominated space whilst simultaneously being an extended celebration of feminism and solidarity on the dance floor and across the barricades whilst storming album closer ‘Dancefloor’ makes a case for (dance) music as vehicle for escapism and solidarity.

For the most part then ‘Record’ is a record that isn’t afraid to couch its messages within the fabric of pleasure and abandon. Thorn has clearly long-ago learned that to be Serious does not equate to being glum and grey and thank goodness for that. Sure, I admit the temptation to take a knife to the grooves of ‘Babies’ is strong, but then again I’m male, childless by choice and, despite have spent most of my life working with children (teenagers, by choice. I wither at the thought of having to teach anyone younger than 11, and even that is pushing it), the whole notion of parenthood as lifestyle/subject for art of any kind fills me with what I admit is close to an irrational nausea. It’s my problem, I know, and I deal with it as best I can. Which here means editing the song out of the album playlist and lifting the needle when I sling the vinyl on the record deck.

You could then perhaps accuse Thorn of being somewhat indulgent on ‘Record’, but if being an artist in any medium is not an excuse for indulgence every so often then frankly what is the point of being an artist at all? Rigour and (self) control are valid and valuable, but only so much and only so far. ‘Record’ is Thorn’s record after all and for the most part we are more than happy to indulge her admissions, confessions, hopes and fears. She is, after all, a National Treasure.

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 4

Last Of The Easy Riders – Unto the Earth

Heard it all before, yeah, yeah yeah. Since when has this mattered in Pop? When has this comment ever been bandied about with a less than denigrating intention? And when has it ever sounded anything other than saturated with smug (male – and it is almost exclusively male) assumed superiority? So yeah, yeah, yeah, we have heard the sound of Last Of The Easy Riders any number of times before and in any number of differently nuanced combinations of influence, reference and reverence. We could drop the names off the cuffs of our sleeves to showcase our educations and the quality of our record collections but what would be the point other than to reinforce aforementioned insufferable smugness? Exactly. Exactly. Pop is not an academic treatise except when it’s an academic treatise.

So put your Burritos back on the burner. Slot that dusted-off and dog-eared Guralnick back where it lives on the bookshelf (okay, I’ll give you a minute to reacquaint yourself with its pleasures) and file those Tom Petty albums in the racks again (and as you do so, ellipsis your way into thoughts of how it is only when artists die now that we really make the opportunities for ourselves to re-acquaint and re-connect with their treasures and from therein ponder how Things Were Better Back When and how we are never sure if this is objectivity talking or if it is the inevitability of our subjective existence pulling memories back and forth through the grooves, the sonic pulse beats and tickling twinkles, like some Proustian radio show in our heads).

GET ON WITH THE RECORD.

So uh, yeah yeah yeah, ‘Unto The Earth’ is psychedelic cosmic rock and roll and I’m alright with that Jack, honest I am. I’ve seen the Pacific from the Midwest and I’ve sprinkled some Joshua Tree sands on my desert boots whilst sipping whisky from the jar. I know that God is Pooh-bear. And so on, ad nauseam and if this puts you off it puts you off and I’m alright with that too Josie, honest I am. Me, I’m spinning this one more time, dropping a needle on a record and luxuriating in “Rosemary and white clover”. What about you?

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 3

Go Kart Mozart – Mozart’s Mini-Mart

Does newness sell as much as nostalgia? I do not know. What I do know is that whilst in 2018 I left the admittedly the delicious looking Felt re-issues on the shelf for more avid collectors to hoover up, I gleefully shelled out my hard-earned cash on the new record by Go-Kart Mozart. It had been six years since the last Go-Kart Mozart record (the euphoric, unsettling, touching and sneeringly bonkers genius of On The Hot-Dog Streets) and boy was it worth the wait. When Hot-Dog lit up 2012 I said it was easily Lawrence’s most accessible and accomplished record since the startlingly brilliant and ahead-of-its-time Back In Denim. I’m delighted to tell you that Mozarts’ Mini-Mart builds on those foundations and claims the title of the most perfect NoveltyTrashPopGlamPunkWhatever record you are likely to hear this week, month, year or ever. Yes yes, Pure Pop hyperbole and that is part of the nod and the knowing wink I’m throwing you, but really, really, really. It’s True. Mini-Mart reeks of bubblegum perfume and tastes of Bazooka Joe acid drops.

The video for the magnificent ‘When You’re Depressed’ seems to posit the perfectly Pop idea of Lawrence as idea rather than individual, persona as opposed to person. Young figures inhabit what to long-standing fans (and tragically, this is still the most likely audience for this record) are instantly recognisable as Lawrence outfits. The ploy infuses the whole thing with the aura of youthful playfulness and crucial cool, although whether any younger tastemakers and influencers will ever see it and then agree is another matter. It’s a great song that treads the tightrope between objectifying and devaluing mental health through humour and being drearily serious and worthy. Lawrence carries it off with aplomb, delivering darkly funny lines in a detached monotone that you suspect are also deeply personal and real. There are moments when it seems to mirror ‘Ballad of The Band’s infamous “Ain’t got no money, Ain’t got no fame” and that’s painful and poignant. One wonders too if Lawrence is still tied to Richard Hell’s notion that the extent to which we remain alive is determined by the extent to which we stick to the attitudes we had as teenagers. One hopes not so much, but one suspects that’s not so. Lawrence still believes in his destiny as Star but perhaps here there are suggestions of an acknowledgement that Stardom might come from what he has passed to those yet to come. Fame by proxy if you will.

Now we all know the value of repetition to Pop so I shall repeat what I said in my past and tell you that Mini-Mart is, like Back In Denim and Hot-Dog Streets, a peculiar protest record; a collection of songs that exists almost entirely within its (i.e. Lawrence’s) own carefully mythologised context. Fittingly though this is the soundtrack of protest that simultaneously colludes; is observation and implicit/explicit rejection of the mainstream absurdities that acknowledges the chip on the shoulder that says “yeah but wouldn’t it be good to be part of it?”. Locked out of the love-in. Locked in to the darkness but sprinkling glitter and poverty glam on every available surface despite it all. Because of it all.

Mini-Mart is Pop that consumes itself. There are riffs and melodies beamed in from Pop’s fast, refracted through its future. You will hear refrains that make you go ‘oh gosh that’s… what is that?… I remember… no I don’t… is that REALLY a Cliff Richard cover?.. yes it is… and what does it matter and who really cares’ and you simply slip into loving the moment even more. Because it’s infected with a past you can only-barely-can’t-even remember and a Now that’s difficult and awkward and mesmerisingly, unremittingly bleak BUT. But you have these songs and these bitter twisted jokes. Anger and envy. Desire and dejection. Shot by both sides, dancing in the deluge of despair. That’s 2018 and that’s Pop. That’s Mozart’s Mini-Mart.