Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 20

Primal Scream – Give Out But Don’t Give Up (The Memphis Sessions)

Let’s get this straight from the start: When ‘Give Out But Don’t Give Up’ came out twenty five years ago I hated almost everything about it. Sure, the Glam Slade Stomp Bubblegum Punk of ‘Rocks’ was hilarious, dumb and hence the perfect Pop single. ‘Jailbirds’ followed it on a similar level of Let’s Pretend To Be The Rolling Stones intensity but somehow Not Just Quite and from thereon it all seemed to nose-dive rapidly into sludgy unlistenable nonsense. In 2018 I gave my clearly barely touched vinyl a spin just to check I wasn’t unfairly projecting twisted memories onto it (after all, at the time I would have been listening to much more hip hop, drum’n’bass, electronic etc). I wasn’t. Indeed, if anything, it sounded even more unpleasant and mired in a time thankfully long since passed. Only the aforementioned ‘Rocks’ and the forgotten print of the William Eggleston cover photograph gave me any delight at all.

Of course the reason for this detour into the murky past was all down to the release of the Original Memphis Sessions. The story is well documented in the record’s lavish liner notes, accompanying facsimile materials and in the BBC4 documentary about the whole process. Now I admit that I found the film in equal parts hilarious, depressing and incredibly (and surprisingly, I admit) touching. Hilarious and depressing in the sense of 50-something men still apparently under the illusion that adding the word ‘fuck’ or ‘fucking’ as punctuation between every other word is essential to illustrate their authenticity as Rock’n’Roll Outlaws and/or Working Class Heroes (and incidentally, as someone who works on a daily basis with children and parents from so-called Disadvantaged and Working Class backgrounds, I am fully cognisant of the dangers of criticising/modifying/judging the language of any given Class’ cultural context). Hilarious and depressing too how the story of the early Primal Scream leapt straight from Council House flats in Glasgow to the one song on their second LP that became ‘Loaded’. Honestly, I get why Gillespie et al want to expunge the ‘All Fall Down’, ‘Imperial’ and ‘Ivy Ivy Ivy’ phases from their narrative, but as someone only half-jokingly pointed out when watching the film, “they’ve missed out the best bit!”.

All that said, I admit I have been taken aback by just how good the Original Memphis Recordings set sounds in 2018. In all honesty it’s many years since I cared about Primal Scream and it was partly a vague disappointment on hearing Spiritualized’s occasionally very fine but often mediocre ‘And Nothing Hurt’ set that I decided to pick up on The Memphis Sessions. If the Spiritualized record gives off hints and suggestions of Southern Rock, Soul and Jazz (and it does) then the frustration for me is that it does so in a very knowing, cold manner. It feels like an exercise in assembling signifiers of Taste, which is fine up to a point but you know it can be very easy to become bored by that point. In contrast the Original Memphis Sessions does sound like a record immersed in its roots. You should know by now how much I mistrust the idea of authenticity in Rock or Pop music, but I am not sure I want to avoid using it here.

A younger Gillespie mutters something in the documentary film about Soul music and amongst the extended (and clearly drug-addled) monologue he is essentially correct. Soul isn’t about the colour of skin, it’s about something ineffable, undefinable. Maybe this is why he struggles to put it into words. Maybe it’s captured in what Tom O’Dowd says about it all being very simple, and maybe that’s all there is to it. It’s so simple that it’s impossible to explain. You can hear it and you can feel it (so why can’t you touch it?).

Some do not hear it in Primal Scream and therefore will not hear it in the Original Memphis Sessions. That is fine, even if they are wrong. For in these grooves I hear songs that soar, songs that dive to the depths of darkness, songs that sooth the pain and songs that open the wounds.

I admit that I am frankly startled by just how good these recordings sound to me, now, in 2018. Unlike the ‘originally’ released version of ‘Give Out’, which sounds completely and utterly Of It’s Time and hence almost entirely unlistenable now, the Memphis Sessions sound timeless, soaked in a magic that is very much rooted in the context of the players who made it and in the place it was made.

At the end of the documentary Gillespie opens up and admits he doesn’t think he will ever make anything as great as this record again. You can’t help but laugh along with him in agreement.

Unpopular advent 2018 – Day 19

Malcolm Middleton – Bananas

‘Love Is A Momentary Lapse In Self Loathing’ might just be the most perfect Malcolm Middleton song title (at least until the next most perfect Malcolm Middleton song title comes along) for it is one that essentially captures the themes of pretty much all his work (that same one song he’s been writing all his life, as he points out on the wonderful album opener ‘Gut Feeling’). For whilst there is light and tenderness on many of Middleton’s records it is inevitably counterpointed by great swathes of bleakness washing through the songs like sea fog advancing imperiously from the North Sea. Yet it is to Middleton’s credit (though I suspect from listening to ‘Bananas’ that he’d not be particularly open to accepting that credit) that he manages to cloak this mainly pessimistic worldview within a music that plays around with glorious Pop hooks that often feel at odds with the lyrical content. Middleton deploys these hooks with care though, and in the mostly lengthy songs on ‘Bananas’ these barbs of delicious melody often emerge as sequences punctuating structures that are diverse yet wholly cohesive. Indeed many of the songs on ‘Bananas’ feel like miniature suites, each with distinct movements, inevitably making the eight tracks feel like many more.

There is too a gallows humour about many of Middleton’s songs and this is certainly present in spades on ‘Love Is…’. There is also something of the potty mouth to Middleton’s songs, but whilst his collaboration with David Shrigley just felt irritating and irrelevant (perhaps this was the point, in which case job done but I just don’t want to listen to it thanks all the same) the more measured use of swearing on ‘Bananas’ feels altogether more human and real. “Fuck off with your happiness” Middleton sings on ‘Love Is…’ and a million misanthropes sing along. Well, maybe not a million but a few, certainly, and since when did we miss an opportunity to indulge in some alliteration when writing about Pop? That would be akin to never repeating yourself.

As he’s/we’ve noted Middleton certainly repeats himself, except that musically he does enjoy exploring different avenues, and after the more electronic backings to the ‘Summer of ’13′ collection ‘Bananas’ employs a greater wealth of instrumentation. There has often been lovely piano work in Middleton’s recordings and it is to the fore on much of ‘Bananas’. At times it puts me in mind of Elton John performing with Lenny Bruce on Blue Night and there is nothing wrong with that after all. There is more orchestration on ‘Bananas’ too and this works in tandem with the aforementioned ‘mini-suite’ structure of many of the songs, notably on the wonderful eight minute ‘Buzz Lightyear Helmet’. “How the fuck am I going to make a Buzz Lightyear helmet from this cardboard box and a roll of tape?” wonders Middleton in a song where he positions mental health in the awkward junction between the desire for isolation and the weight of responsibility. It’s another song of almost manic oscillations between light and shade and even as we revel in the closing chorus of “we’re gonna have fun, fun, fun on the east coast” we are already setting up for a half minute of plaintive piano receding out into that North Sea fog. ‘Man Up, Man Down’ meanwhile is the number where the electronic echoes of ‘Summer of ’13’ come back most obviously, driving the song through its central element with an almost motorik insistence. There is a moment here where Middleton talks about checking his tie in a mirror and “wondering ‘what would Ian say’” and is it just me or this is an Ian Curtis reference? I mean, there are lots of men called Ian, but when Middleton follows this not long after with the repeated “isolation” then it does all rather feel like a nod and a wink.

I’m not sure if there is also a nod and a wry wink to Joy Division in ‘Love Is…’ but you could certainly make the connection and it would fit sweetly next to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ on a mix of love songs that dwell on the shadows cast by that particular emotion. It’s in those shadows that Middleton scratches out his art, making terrific mementoes such as ‘Bananas’. It’s in the records, in the songs, in the shadows where Middleton makes sense of (his) existence and like all artists we certainly feel the question of where the individual ends and the artist begins. The individual informs the art and the feedback loop of the art informs the individual. Middleton acknowledges this in Love Is… as he escapes to “hide in a song”, cloaking the ego in the artifice of creation.

Fuck off with your happiness indeed.

Unpopular advent 2018 – Day 18

Oskar’s Drum – Degenerate Art

Oskar’s Drum appeared in the 2016 Unpopular advent with a track from their ‘A Cathedral Of Hands’ set but this was the year I was undertaking my 50/50 project and so I did not have space or time to write anything about each of my choices. If I had done it is certain that I would have been mentioning how great it was to hear again the voice of Patrick Fitzgerald; a voice I have treasured ever since hearing Kitchens Of Distinction all those years ago (thirty, to be exact, for I cannot quite claim to have had such a finger on the pulse as to have heard their ‘Last Gasp Death Shuffle’ single in 1987).

In truth of course I must admit that, just as with Buffalo Tom, there was a period where I stupidly ignored Kitchens of Distinction. It seems unfathomable looking back now, but that idiotic younger me disclaimed an interest in the group just after Quick As Rainbows and it was not until some time later that I properly listened to ‘Strange Free World’, ‘Death of Cool’ or ‘Cowboys and Aliens’. Indeed it might have been as recently/far back (delete according to particular mood) as 2003’s ‘Capsule’ compilation that caused me to reappraise that particular period in my life and find it desperately wanting, certainly as far as guitar rock/pop records were concerned.

So yes, it has been a marvellous pleasure to have unearthed those earlier records and in more recent times to enjoy Fitzgerald’s work as Stephen Hero and now in collaboration with Yves Altana as Oskar’s Drum (not forgetting 2013 ‘comeback’ Kitchens of Distinction album ‘Folly’). Now I do not know much about Yves Altana but I notice that he has made records with Mark Burgess in the past and there is certainly something of The Chameleons’ epic swoop to Oskar’s Drum, as there was indeed to Kitchens of Distinction. That ill-informed idiotic younger me would often disclaim grandeur in music and art, conflating it as often as not with excess (and all the vile ‘80s consumerist connotations that involved). What I did not see, and which is clearer to me now, is that in terms of art or music this sense of grandeur can often be something which is an illusion of scale, or at least of a scale and luxury that is underpinned by pretence. That notion of the theatrical again. And didn’t we say there was something of the operatic about Folly? Well quite.

‘Degenerate Art’ is certainly theatrical in the Soft Cell sense, and there is of course within the record the flavour of decadent Weimar nightclubs; all smoke, mirrors and forbidden pleasures. There is something of Mr Norris changing trains about this – Isherwood at the Moka Efti or the November Group at the Cabaret Voltaire. Of course the album’s title (Adolf’s denunciation wryly inverted into celebration) suggests this connection and it is certainly continued through ‘Of Their Bones’, which is another one of those songs from 2018 that illuminates the state that we are in. As a nation (take your pick) or as a body of humanity. If it is somewhat simplistic in its evocation of that 1930s European history repeating then that is surely one of its strengths, for the song pulls no punches, hides no sentiment behind poesy. Atop a glooming reverberation that is almost martial in its undertow Fitzgerald sings “Of the men, of the women, Of the boys, of the girls” lost to the horrors of ideologies gone haywire. Unlike The Chills, however, Oskar’s Drum seem to have little sense of optimism for the future, at least in this moment.

Yet if mostly bleak shadowy ghosts inhabit this song, elsewhere on the record there are certainly glimmers of hope. On the wonderful album opener ‘This Dancing’ Altana and Fitzgerald pay homage to the inspiration of Bowie whilst ‘Walker’ captures the simple pleasures of nature (“A kingfisher leaping / A dancing blue jay / Goldfinch in his bright yellow gown”). ‘Walker’ in particular is a song I could see on a ‘Caught By The River’ playlist and that is surely a compliment of the highest order. Finally, album closer ‘Say No’ makes the point that whilst there may be little reason for optimism, acts of defiance are still ones we continue to be driven to perform.

Whilst these glimpses of sunlight serve to heighten the chiaroscuro in ‘Degenerate Art’ it is still from the deep shadows that most of the record draws its power. It’s that battle between light and dark again. That conflict between hope and despair, between whose poles we oscillate in tremulous existence.

Unpopular advent 2018 – Day 17

Princess Chelsea – The Loneliest Girl

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

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

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

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

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

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 16

Deerful – Tell Me I Can Fix This on My Own

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

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

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

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

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 15

The Chills – Snow Bound

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

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

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

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

Unpop 168

resistance is the joy of holding your breath

Quiet, The Winter Harbor – Mazzy Star (from ‘Still’ EP)
24 Hour Drugstore – Marlaena Moore (from ‘Gaze’ LP. Bandcamp)
Feel Like Going Home – Alpaca Sports (from ‘From Paris With Love’ LP. Bandcamp)
Say You’ll Be Home For Christmas – White Town (from WIAIWYA ‘Stars’ LP (Bandcamp)
The Christmas Stick – Bubble and Squeak (digital single)
Respect The Labourers – Princess Chelsea (from ‘The Loneliest Girl’ LP. Bandcamp)
Radio Kids – Strand of Oaks (from ‘Hard Love’ LP. Bandcamp)
Tom Petty Karaoke – Amy Rigby (digital single. Bandcamp)
Say No – Oskar’s Drum (from ‘Degenerate Art’ LP. Bandcamp)
Poll – The Monkees (from ‘Head’ LP)
Lamplight – Bee Gees (from ‘Odessa’ LP)
Mars (Won’t Save Us) – The Room in the Wood (from ‘ The Mars EP’. Bandcamp)
100 Years From Now – Last of the Easy Riders (digital single. Bandcamp)
Videograms – The Twilight Sad (10″ single)
Sucking in the Sun – Flo & Spicey (from Flo & Spicey’s Tea Set’ LP. Bandcamp)
Flying – Hairband (from ‘Hairband’ EP. Bandcamp)
Playing as Punks – Free Love (from ‘Luxury Hits‘ LP)
October – NICHOLAS KRGOVICH (from ‘Ouch’ LP. Bandcamp)
This Is the Love – Norma Jean Wright (from ‘Norma Jean’ LP)
Heaven, Almost – Ralegh Long (digital single. Bandcamp)
A Hard Rain (Live At SPOC) – Chris T-T (from ‘In the Church With A Cold’. Bandcamp)

fumbling to press record