Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 21

Big Thief – ‘Contact’ from ‘UFOF’

Big Thief have been new to the Unpopular world in 2019 and whilst we have enjoyed exploring their earlier work to a degree, it seems to us as though ‘UFOF’ takes a gigantic step away from the trajectory those earlier recordings might suggest the group were on. So whilst the surely tongue in cheek titled ‘Masterpiece’ set from from 2016 and the following year’s ‘Capacity’ are fine enough as orthodox folk-rock records they do sound largely, resolutely orthodox.

‘UFOF’ on the other hand, whilst obviously sharing the folk-rock roots of those previous efforts, apparently spreads wings and shakes off the overbearing dinginess of that orthodoxy and dares to dream of wilder and more peculiar climes. Didn’t Wire once talk of taking rock’n’roll apart and putting it back together in a different form? Well it feels like on ‘UFOF’ Big Thief have taken their folk-rock blueprint apart and reassembled it according to an instruction manual devoid of useful diagrams and written only in an alien language that no-one in the group can translate. Instead they appear to have stripped the language back to a few patterns and inferences from which they have assembled intriguing new forms that whilst being clearly recognisable as belonging to genres we know and (think we) understand, still seems just off-kilter and deliciously so. The angles are just a little off; joints carefully filed but with holes in the welds to let the dreams in (and out); ancient wood bound to re-cycled aluminium pipework with weathered purple gardening string. Nothing quite correct but everything unquestionably right.

We hear all sorts when we listen to ‘UFOF’. We hear strains of Kate Bush, which we should stress right away is not the ringing endorsement it would be from so many of our Unpopular friends who appear to have elevated Bush to Mystic status. Despite repeated attempts to see/hear what they see/hear we can never find it except in small amounts (though we would certainly concur that ‘The Hounds Of Love’ is deserving of its exalted status). Perhaps the small amounts are all that matter, but Bush still to us remains a second rate Vashti Bunyan with a good deal too many mystical pretensions and an overblown sense of her own cleverness. So perhaps what we mean when we say we hear strands of Bush in Big Thief is that we hear traces of Bunyan echo in the midnight chill, bounced across the Atlantic Ocean and skimming the waves like so many moonlit kisses. We hear something of Joanna Newsom in ‘UFOF’ too. Perhaps it is that same natural strangeness, a peculiarity that might to some seem strained and pretentious, but then like Momus we have never found pretentiousness something to recoil from or reject. Except in Kate Bush, obviously.

Perhaps it is inevitable that listening to Big Thief should make us think too of previous 4AD artists, and certainly when we listen to ‘UFOF’ there are moments when the sparse harrowed textures of the first Red House Painters album spring to mind. Elsewhere too we are minded to recall when Throwing Muses made records that scratched and scalded us with ingredients that were angular and dysfunctional yet somehow conspired to collide in ways that moved us into universes showing vast new possibilities. Like Throwing Muses then Big Thief seem to take Folk, Rock and Pop apart before glueing the pieces back together in ways which never quite fit. We sense gaps. Intuit new meaning from what is left out. They construct that meaning in ways that prod us off-balance; ways that slip around our waist and pull us close; ways that tease and torment in unequal measure and that leave us giddy with a pleasure we want to last forever yet want to end so we can embrace the thrill of finding it all over again.

Now we often feel guilty choosing album openers for our Unpopular mixes, as if there is some implicit suggestion that we have not bothered to investigate beyond that point. Yet ’Contact’ is certainly the number we keep coming back to on ‘UFOF’ and so we drop all apologies and slot it into our advent mix regardless.

‘Contact’ is a song that plays magical tricks on our psyches. It seems to last longer than its not-quite four minute duration, during which it somehow shifts shape from gently benign faerie to snarling beast of the moor. Examined objectively this transformation appears to occur with exactly one minute of the song remaining, initiated by a pause, a scream and an electricity that quickens the pulse. And yet this objectivity barely uncovers the reality of an experience which feels unsettlingly different with each play. Time cuts in and folds itself over on our realities. The pause fractionally shorter or longer with every listening, that gap filled with whatever else might be revolving around us. Off we go again. Spiralling on psychedelic trips that are electrically organic. Something like love. Something like enlightenment.

‘Contact’, like the rest of ’UFOF’ may not be enlightenment but at least Big Thief sound like they are striving for something close by being something other than the expected. ‘UFOF’ is a record that draws us in, draws us back, holds us close at arms length. It’s a record that gives space, gives freedom, gives wonder.

Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 20

Angel Olsen – ‘Chance’ from ‘All Mirrors’ LP

I’ve always enjoyed Angel Olsen’s albums but could never escape the feeling that they too often felt like a few great songs held together by just so much unmemorable filling. ‘All Mirrors’ however is certainly the record to buck that trend, feeling by some distance the most coherent album that Olsen has yet made. There is a roundness to this record that I have felt previously lacking, a unity of aesthetic that pervades each creaking crack and corner. The mood is set immediately by the striking black and white cover shot of Olsen surrounded by black faux-fur (one assumes it is faux – somehow anything more ‘real’ would feel strangely inauthentic in 2019). It vaguely recollects David Bailey’s portrait of Jagger, which is no bad thing of course. If I were being picky though I would say I would have preferred the lighting a little less harsh and a touch more grain in the print so that it perhaps cast an eye to some of the shots from Roy DeCarava’s ‘The Sound I Saw’ body of work (republished in a new edition in 2019 after too many years out of print), for there is certainly something of the smoky basement bar jazz mood to much of Olsen’s record.

Only the latter part of six-minute plus album opener ‘Lark’ really belies the overall mood of deeply shaded mystery, being strangely (in the context of what follows) robust, dynamic and almost muscular. Heard in that wider context of the album’s unfolding mood, this seems almost as a moment of cathartic release necessary to allow Olsen the darkened space into which she can drop and disappear. Indeed, oftentimes Olsen sounds barely there (as on the exquisite ‘Impasse’ and ‘Endgame’), a beat figure sitting solitary by the ashtray surrounded by empty whisky glasses.

There are many synthetic sounds threaded through the songs on ‘All Mirrors’ and whilst at times this gives the record a peculiar 1980s tinge, it never feels anything other than contemporary. Olsen achieves this by balancing the synthetic with what sound very much like ‘authentic’ instruments, notably swathes of luxurious strings through which many of the songs slink seductively, like smoke drifting from the black corners of the soul. Caught in the light of Olsen’s voice these strings shiver and merge into sleek fingernails on the spine, setting off shudders of deep discordant pleasure, just so. It’s the relationships between each of these elements that really bring the pleasure, as we feel the tension between real and unreal, those moments when this world dissolves into that, as perception flickers and the invisible threads of existence puncture our souls.

It all reaches perfect poise on six minute album closer ‘Chance’, where Olsen seems to reach a moment of clarity. Here we find resolution of sorts in a song that seems simultaneously assured yet softly, sadly resigned. It’s a deliciously sumptuous arrangement that wouldn’t be out of place on a 1950s set by Doris Day. Olsen murmurs ’It’s hard to say ‘forever’ love… forever’s just so far’ before sweeping away on the almost whispered ‘why don’t you say you’re with me now with all of your heart’ and then into a gently fading diminuendo that dims the lights and kisses our eyelids goodnight.

Unpopular advent 2019 – Day 19

Emily Fairlight – ‘Water Water’ from ‘Mother Of Gloom’ LP

In 2018 we experimented a little with the structure of the Unpopular advent series by forcing ourselves to choose records in a more or less chronological order from throughout the year. Perhaps it (more or less) worked because 2018 was a peculiarly consistent year, for when we considered following the same approach for 2019 we found ourselves very much struggling to admit entry to records from the early months in favour of ones released later. Plussing as which we felt that treating the whole series as a mix in itself would lend itself to a more organic sequencing. We will let the Unpopular audience (all three of you) be a judge on the success or otherwise of this approach.

All that aside though, there is certainly one record from those first few months of the year that we have found ourselves returning to with regularity. ‘Mother Of Gloom’ by Emily Fairlight may well have passed us by had it not been co-released in New Zealand and the UK by the Fishrider and Occultation labels, but even by the high standards expected of anything from these two labels ‘Mother Of Gloom’ is astonishing. Fairlight (real name Emily Peters) herself has described her music as ‘Doom Folk’ and whilst it is a fairly apt summation it also fails to capture the depth and breadth of her vision. Fairlight’s music reminds us of label mates Death And The Maiden in that whilst sonically they may appear to come from opposite ends of the spectrum (Death And The Maiden seeped in abstract electronics) they both manage to work a sense of intimacy from expansive overviews of dark places inhabited by (personal) demons.

On ‘Mother Of Gloom’ we find ourselves firmly placed within landscapes that are familiar from mediated exposure. We may have never visited them physically yet we feel we know them intimately from records, books, films. In album opener ‘Body Below’ for example we wander out with Martha Wainwright into bleached deserts where we encounter sun-scarred hobos who have wandered out of David Lynch movies accompanied by hoodlum angels with switchblade wings. ‘Time’s Unfaithful Wife’ meanwhile finds us treading the boards in Linda Ortega’s gothic country with a Bukowski paperback tucked in our back pocket. In the folds of ‘Private Apocalypse’ we discover old photographs rescued from years spent exposed to the elements, decomposed and ghostly yet immeasurably valuable and achingly poignant. On the five minute stretch of ‘Loneliest Race’ we are in the borderlands of Dorothy B. Hughes’ ‘Ride The Pink Horse’, trumpets forlornly accompanying Art Smith on his quest for justice.

Finally, in ‘Water Water’ we have a drinking song for the dispossessed (is there any other kind? Probably not) that comes over at times like Anne Pigalle singing in a dingy bar in Sierra Blanca (on the wrong side of the tracks, naturally). It’s Nick Cave playing Lucinda Williams doing a cover from ‘The Boatman’s Call’ or perhaps vice-versa. The whisky makes it gloriously impossible to quite tell the difference. Fairlight’s character in this song is firmly in control of her damaged destiny (we imagine her twin pillars of succour perhaps being Hefner’s ‘Hymn for the Alcohol’ and ‘Hymn for the Cigarettes’ ) and there is a delicious mirroring of Lloyd Cole’s rejection of moderation in the lines about letting “the fuckups settle down”. In both Cole’s and Fairlight’s lines we see a considered inversion of expectations. ’Norms’ are rejected. ‘Deviancy’ is embraced and reframed/reclaimed as the preferable option. Secret signs and cyphers to communicate with like-minded souls in a world where to be seen to be different is to be seen to be fair game.

‘Water Water’ then may be a song about hiding away in the dark corners, nursing a half pint of gin for what remains of our eternity, but it is also strangely, compellingly strong willed and defiant. Fairlight’s closing, repeated refrain of “I’ll drown before I sink” seems a curiously apposite and poignant line in the face of challenge, suggesting that whilst we may be damned to a dispiritingly gloomy future, at the very least we can hold onto the illusion of control in our personal destinies. Even if that can only be enacted through self-destruction.

We’ll drown before we sink, indeed.

Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 18

Vetchinsky Settings – ‘Accidental Beauty’ from ‘Underneath the stars, still waiting’ LP

It is the nature of Pop to proclaim different favourites of this and of that with every passing breath. In keeping with that nature then we tell you that today our favourite vocalist is James Hackett and our favourite composer Mark Tranmer. Tomorrow it may all be different and yesterday was never the same, but what does that all matter anyway when Pop is about the invisible here and the impossible now. The moments that exist only in the breath of a heartbeat and the geometry of existence. The moments that last forever.

Those who know the score know Hackett best as the voice of The Orchids and Tranmer as the name behind GNAC and as part of The Montgolfier Brothers, amongst others, each having made records that nestle securely on the top shelf of our most beloveds. Hardly surprising then that together as Vetchninsky Settings they have made another record that has swiftly reached into those same heady circles, breathing rarified atmospheres of hushed phthalo blues and bistre washes.

Tranmer’s work has always had cinematic qualities and so it is no surprise to see that connection made explicit on ‘Underneath the stars, still waiting’ with the record peppered with repurposed dialogue and unfolding in an expressionist narrative. We hear characters nod and blow kisses to the lens. Here is Sinatra as A Man Alone and here is Henry Mancini slipping a Manhattan to Anita Kerr in a Kelvinside bistro. Here is Peggy Olson and there is Rachel Brosnahan acting out the period costume and trailing the shopping bags into an empty Govan appartment kitchen. Smoke’s getting in our eyes. We blink and blush as baroque phrases curl around icicles hung from fire escapes. We taste the rain and we touch the flowers. The blues turn to black and white. We flicker on.

‘Underneath the stars, still waiting’ is exquisitely composed, from the songs to the sleeves to the record centres and postcards (all beautifully designed by Timothy O’Donnell) and back again to the songs. The conceit of the record is simple: Four vinyl sides covering ‘Birth’, ‘Love’, ‘Grief’ and ‘Death’ (with one of those cinematic interludes referencing pregnancy and therefore closing the circle and continuing the loop). We could yawn at the obviousness of such a universal theme as the circle of life if it were not for the fact that it is so elegantly carried off. Nowhere do we scent the sense of sickly sweet and cloying sentiment. There is nostalgia, yes, but it is that of knowingly mediated reference points, which is to say a fragile nostalgia which is entirely fictional (which is also to say the only definition of nostalgia worth playing with). Indeed, if we did not have the record sleeve to hand and were listening to the album in a motor car or train or bus (as we do, for it is almost 2020 and this is what life looks like for better or for worse) then it is entirely conceivable that this circle of life conceptual vehicle might pass us by entirely, our thoughts perhaps only prodded into wondering by those dialogue interludes and glancing at the screen to see that the closing songs are called ‘Endgame’, ‘My First Breath (In Nostalgia)’ and ‘My Last Breath’. Okay, those do kind of give the game away. Oh, but what a game it is.

We suggested earlier in this advent series that Lloyd Cole’s ‘Guessworks’ set is made of songs that support each other to provide a sense of album unity, and this is certainly also true of ‘Underneath the stars, still waiting’. Yet today, perhaps with a cold steel revolver barrel pressed into our temples, we are forced to choose one and so we opt for the completely-by-design beauty of ‘Accidental Beauty’, the song that closes the opening ‘Birth’ act and serves as a neat connective into ‘Love’, seamlessly transitioning as the red velvet curtains swish before us.

‘Accidental Beauty’ is one of the numbers on ‘Underneath the stars, still waiting’ that most recalls The Orchids in structure and sound, perhaps because it is one of the songs that might have been composed on guitar rather than piano (such song-writing technicalities are an alien science to us however, so it is entirely possible we are talking nonsense). Certainly there are some delicate guitar lines trembling through the song, mingling with thrumbling drums and bass that reach into our hearts and pull out tarnished stars. It is a song that seems to be about the implicit tensions and contradictions between love and rage, between emotions of release and of captivity, between paternal care and anger. And as Hackett repeatedly sings in his exquisite half-mumble that “Every little tear will help (us) grow” whilst “every little disappointment helps (us) know” we know that this is what it sounds like to love in our indolent modern world.

The sound of life, indeed.

Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 17

The Mountain Goats – ‘An Antidote for Strychnine’ from ‘In League With Dragons’ LP

From the opening bass notes and deeply reverberating drums of ‘Done Bleeding’ it is clear we have come a long way from those Itzcuintli-Totzli Days. This is no bad thing. For whilst some may proclaim a preference for Mountain Goats’ records made in those distant times of no-fi recording technologies and filled with guttural howls of frustration and wounds opened by razor-wire and soaked in vinegar (catch us on a certain day and we’ll sometimes say yeah, there is a point to be made there) we feel duty bound to remind ourselves that we are no longer in our twenties and we are no longer in Kansas. Or wherever the hell we always felt uncomfortable, lost, blighted, benighted, burn-it-all-down enraged. Which isn’t to say we don’t dig that some of us could never and can ever escape those places because those places travel WITH us, however often and however quickly we run away. Those things are perhaps within us eating us out… It’s just, perhaps we can find a balm in the very process of the running, in the process of the making it up as we grow.

Dylan said something about how life isn’t for finding ourselves but for making ourselves and whilst we are sure he was paraphrasing or just plain stealing those lines, let’s just think on the words and say heck yeah, amen to that brother Bob and head on out to make something new of/for ourselves from the threads of wonderment that we catch in the air and in the earth and in the spirits. We said yesterday that Robert Forster is a splendid example of the artists’ work ethic and we suppose this is what we are thinking about again today. Making the work because of need and not because of some great reward. We would suggest that John Darnielle is in this mould, for has there been a more marvellously productive artist in the past twenty seven years? We can think of few to compare and certainly the Mountain Goats’ ‘In League With Dragons’ album is another piece of a puzzle that continues to enthral, changing its skin with each passing phase, delightfully confusing and challenging us as we get older.

Indeed, there are moments when listening to ‘In League With Dragons’ when we wonder if we are listening to The Mountain Goats at all and have instead been teleported onto the set of a 1970s made-for-TV movie where a band of musicians have been booked to make a soundtrack and where the producer’s only direction is that it should be “kinda jazzy funky soulful, you know, like ‘Abandoned Luncheonette’” And the band are pros and so of course they make it up on the spot and of course they fuckin’ NAIL it.

It’s true. The Mountain Goats fuckin’ NAIL IT on ‘In League With Dragons’. This is the sound of a group who are assured but never showy, supremely confident but never cocky. Jon Wurster’s drums are frequently mesmerising, sometimes syncopated (as on terrific album closer ’Sicilian Crest’ or fusing with the horns as ‘Younger’ reaches its climax) other times sparse and restrained. A thump that pierces the heart just so. Measured. Treasured. Peter Hughes’ bass is supremely smooth and invites us to remember the way Scritti Politti sounded when they made ‘Songs To Remember.’ Horns and strings lend textures that are at times delicate, at others pungent and bewilderingly complex with patterns playing off each other like repeated harshangs in a Khorosan carpet. Like, WOW.

‘An Antidote For Strychnine’ is one of those points where the group know the treasure to be found in playing it slow and spacious, building to points of restrained release. When a flurry of woodwind blows in at three minutes forty it feels like delicious refreshment after a trek through the painted desert. Their brief refrains are immediately picked up by organ keys, swirling round our spines and leading us on a divine dance into a landscape of gloriously refined flashes of colour, as though we tripped over the Box Of Delights and slipped into the folds of an Adriaen van de Velde painting reimagined by Ethel Schwabacher. Let’s say it again: Like, WOW.

This then is how we see The Mountain Goats in 2019. In League With Dragons. In a league of their own.

Like, WOW.

Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 16

Robert Forster – ‘Remain’ from ‘Inferno’ LP

In the absence of any new Goon Sax records in 2019 it is left to Louis Forster’s dad Robert to uphold family honour in the Unpopular advent series. Not that there was ever any doubt that he would do so, for when has Robert Forster been anything less than a magnificent icon of articulate, assured Pop awkwardness, after all?

‘Inferno’ is certainly that and more, and was there a finer image in 2019 than that of Robert pushing a mower through the overgrown lawns in the video to the album’s title track? Truly magnificent.

‘Inferno’ though is perhaps the outlier track on the album in that it is relatively upbeat, at least in pace and punch, whilst elsewhere the mood is certainly more lugubrious and sedate, although always with a tension in the manner in which space and tones fit but never quite fit. ‘Inferno’ is a humane record in the sense that it is human in scale (thirty five minutes all in) which is to say that it is a record that knows the pleasure of brevity and the value of choosing our phrases carefully. In many places Forster uses the record to remind us of (our) lives spanning time, through characters that inhabit lyrics which might be slivers from novels or half-dreamt snatches of cinematic dialogue trapped between the shutters of the projector like Ed Ruscha paintings flickering in the twilight of Todd Hido photographs.

‘Remain’ is the song we keep coming back to, for it is one that is surely auto-biographical but that also neatly sidesteps away from that notion by the simple conceit of Robert imagining himself as the silver-screen actor or auteur we once suggested he might have been in an alternate universe or time. But this isn’t Terry Malloy telling us he could have been a contender. Forster’s character is too confident in his own skin and reconciled with his experiences for that. He effortlessly walks the finely balanced line between self-assured insouciance and over-inflated self-importance, the dignified charm of the genuinely blessed always winning through. It’s possible that comes with age of course. Perspective. Acknowledgement that massive public acclaim may have been missed, but oh, he still knows those performances, that work is invaluable. That work is great, and the love of the ones who’ve spotted the treasures is plenty to sustain us in the darkness through and into which we inevitably must tread.

This is the sound of Robert Forster telling us that Robert Forster knows the score, even if most of the world have been oblivious. It is the sound of Robert Forster telling us that Robert Forster understands the value of work and the value of love (we can imagine Forster nodding sagely along with Reed and Cale singing about Warhol’s ‘Work’ on ‘Songs For Drella’). This is the sound of Robert Forster reminding us that Robert Forster can do magic to turn backs. Effortlessly and magnificently. Still and always.

Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 15

GospelbeacH – ‘Fighter’ from ‘Let It Burn’ LP

If Young Guv has made a couple of connected albums that so marvellously mine seams of Power Pop then GospelbeacH have certainly made one that follows those seams into the treasures of another favourite Unpopular genre, that of Cosmic American Music. This should come as no surprise since GospelbeacH features the likes of Beachwood Sparks’ Brent Rademaker and the already much missed Neal Casal who so sadly left us just prior to this record’s release.

If Casal’s loss inevitably colours our reading of ‘Let It Burn’ with hues of sorrow and melancholy then it only adds a tinge that it would already carry. Not that ‘Let It Burn’ is a sad-fest. Far from it, indeed, for at its heart this is a record brimming with assured good-time rock and rolling, players and singers revelling in the sheer pleasure of making music together. That sense of togetherness, of soul if you will, ripples ineffably throughout ‘Let It Burn’ and binds it into a whole that we cannot help but come back to time and again. There are individual spots of pleasure of course (the Ray Davies-in Amercicana-esque ‘Bad Habits’, the soaraway Power Poprocker ‘Dark Angel’ and the (auto?)biographical ‘Good Kid’ which also features the terrific Miranda Lee Richards) but it works marvellously as a cohesive album. Perhaps that is something of an outmoded concept in these digital download times (we are as entwined in those technologies as any) but we feel certain GospelbeacH know what we are talking about.

Whilst the focus of our attentions is of course on those (Nudie) threads of Americana that weave so deliciously through the California Sun-tinted sounds of GospelbeacH we should not forget that there are also refractions of the anglophile leanings that Rademaker has long displayed in his work. It is tempting to draw a line from GospelbeacH to Primal Scream, for example, and there is certainly something of the thrill of those ‘Give Out’ Memphis Sessions seeping through ‘Let It Burn’, and let us not forget of course that The Tyde (another of Rademaker’s groups) once covered ‘Leaves’. Indeed, slip us a few drinks and we’ll probably tell you that ‘Let It Burn’ is only the album Primal Scream could have made after ‘Sonic Flower Groove’ if they hadnae taken so many bad drugs, slipped on too many leather trousers and listened to too much Southern Rock. We’d be drunk and talking shite of course, but sometimes there are glimmers of truth in such ramblings so we will leave it at that and pour another whisky.

It’s to Felt though that we always see the most obvious connections in much of Rademaker’s music, perhaps mostly because his vocal style is reminiscent of the nearly spoken delivery of Lawrence. Again, maybe it’s that whisky playing its delicious tricks but we cannot resist the temptation to tell you that album closer ‘Hoarder’ comes over like Lawrence doing a Lou Reed impersonation over a honky-tonk soundtrack. “Let’s order drinks and skip the dinner”. That may sound like misery to some (perhaps even to Lawrence himself) but it sounds like heaven to our Unpopular ears.

It’s in the mighty six and a half minute ‘Fighter’ that the Felt connections feel most obvious though, and in mix-tapes in our hearts we are sequencing this next to ‘New Day Dawning’ with Casal’s wonderful guitar lines connecting to those moments when John Mohan took flight and we all gasped at the idea of Felt turning into Dire Straits. ‘Fighter’ replicates that delicate-turned-dramatic dynamic and GospealbeacH turn in a performance that could slide equally neatly onto ‘Let It Bleed’ or ‘Burrito Deluxe’ as ‘Me And A Monkey On The Moon’. It may be sad to reflect that ‘Fighter’, like the entirety of ‘Let It Burn’ might act as an epitaph for Neil Casal’s tragic passing, but it should surely rather be read in as fittingly positive a light as possible. RIP Neil Casal and Burn On GospelbeacH.