Monday, 19 August 2013

Wot I dun on mi zummer olidays

I saw a picture on twitter the other week. It was an old black and white photo of a grandfather and grandson, Werthers-original-stylee. The caption read, "so grandad, tell me what it was like when you had to buy an entire album, even though you only wanted one song".  At first I just laughed. Then I got to thinking...

I'm the world's worst for reaping single songs from albums. Many of my best compilations have been so created. However, even before this, I have been hankering for the complete, crafted, lovingly arranged thing which is an album. Two things happened in quick succession to put me in this frame of mind. First, I downloaded Dark Side of the Moon for £3, and really enjoyed it, without actually liking it. (Sound familiar, album lovers?). Second, I read Paul Brannigan's quite brilliant biography of Dave Grohl: This is a Call. It dissects some famous, infamous and classic albums in forensic-with-a-kiss detail.

I had to do something. A stand needed to be made. As all my previous blogs illustrate, if there's a totally pointless and futile stand to be stood, a clueless or senseless point to be made, I'm just the guy to do it.  Therefore, I set about filling my iPhone with a whole range of albums old and new to listen to in their entirety, in a one man tribute to the art form. A foreign holiday is just the time to play a little game I'd just invented called "album of the day".

The first upshot was a pleasant nostalgia for turning some of these over after track 5. ( younger readers, ask your grandad). The second was relearning the discipline it takes to sit still ( with your feet tapping and left hand playing the occasional snare) for the best part of an hour, but, trust me, it soon returned, like the riding of a lyrical bike.

New Order Republic

(Mini history lesson kids) I first bought this album on cassette at Woolworths on Hawthorn Rd, next to the shop me mom worked in, the source of about 90% of all my preteen music purchases. (Kids, how many of the words above require explanation?)

Always a New Order fan, too young to do anything but enjoy the stories of Joy Division, this is the first NO album I owned that I hadn't nicked from Uncle Gary (who will feature repeatedly throughout this blog). I remembered I'd got a copy of this album through my discovery of another: Waiting for the Sirens Call, a much later album, was poking its neck out of the rack that little bit further, obscuring a cd purchase of a long forgotten fave.

First afternoon on the sunbed, after an altogether too large a lunch, and more keo beer than should be consumed in one short sitting, I plugged in my new pair of skull candies (grandfathers, ask your grandsons) and listened in. I was almost immediately transported back to being a 14 year old, wishing I could play the bass like Peter hook, and two or three tracks leaped out at me across decades.

The album as an art form is a fine thing, but it's not infallible. I hated to admit it to myself, even more than I do publicly, that - a few tracks aside - I was a little disappointed. It was cool, it was innovative, it was melodic, but I was no longer a 14 year old with a cassette player, and I needed more. (Sadly, I still feel that, the hits aside, new order's best offering lies way down the playlist / on the b-side of waiting for the sirens call; check out a song called "guilt is a useless emotion" and you'll see what I mean. It captures the history of the band backwards, from hook jogging off to form Monaco, back to Curtis wanting to create something unique.)

I loved remembering it, but won't be rushing back to it as a whole piece anytime soon. But I still love hooky's bass, and will always have a fondness for some of Bernie Sumner's lyrics. And I love the fact I owned that album from the time it was released, in two formats.

Smashing Pumpkins  Adore

My relationship with the pumpkins is as weird and tempestuous as Billy Corgan’s relationship with various bassists. It began with a very young love of punk (thank you once again Uncle Gary) and continues in steady lineage through some of the stuff I play for Ru. It takes in the Police, Garbage, the Strokes, Muse, JJ72 and anything new offered by Q magazine. The Pumpkins arrived via the MTV era, and I loved the fact that their music and plain old fashioned disfunctionality sat side by side. Billy Corgan once openly announced "rock and roll is dead!". His manager, a certain Sharon Osborne, retorted "well, no-one told me".

This album has its low points, but when they get the electro stuff right in the guitar mix, I love it. Part rock opera, part rock soap opera, with a hint of self-indulgence, Adore will always work, even if only for goth baldy weirdos like me... and Billy Corgan.

Garbage Version 2.0

I'd forgotten all about this album until Ru and the kids in the street were going around singing some modern song about when I grow up, I wanna be famous... I of course changed it to "when I grow up ill be stable by garbage. I'd completely forgotten about this album which was an ever present on our CD player at one point.

So, one album of the day was given over entirely to its rediscovery. Which I have to say, I really rather enjoyed. This was no nostalgia trip either; this is a cracking album, extremely well organised and crafted, with some stand-out musicality. Shirley Manson could read me the phone book, and I think I'd still be worried about me mum finding out.

Really good. Enough said.

Semisonic Feeling Strangely Fine & All About Chemistry

Again, old favourites revisited. Again, they stand the test of time, the lyrics become somewhat more poignant as I get older. I saw them once at the Colston hall, and they proved then what they substantiate in these two albums - these three are fine musicians and good songwriters. 

Although I love my rock and my heavy sounds, these three are at their absolute best when they do subtle, understated, sensitive – the song Act Naturally is all about a couple going to a party together after having had a row, and how they tacitly and quietly agree to keep it all hidden until later.  Know the feeling?  Quite beautiful..

Mgmt Oracular Spectacular & Congratulations.  Klaxons; Myths of the near future

A real treat: kids in kids club, no one making demands on me, glorious sunshine, a new pair of skull candies. Ask yourself: why only do one album when you can do three?

MGMT were introduced to me shortly after I arrived at Badocks, and their first album has always been a gem. The millions of covers of Kids on youtube (I recommend the Ooks of Hazard) will doubtless make it an anthem of sorts.

Then came the second album, the expansion of the band and of its sound, and the challenge on the boundaries of the truly listenable.

I will always come down on the side of Oracular Spectacular as, to me, it is a more complete piece, more unified, with little in the way of filler. Although Congratulations has its high notes, it often strikes me as a bit disparate.

So, having seen those two off, and still without anyone invading my space, I happily discovered the klaxons, and it just seemed to fit the mood and tempo of the day.

I remember these boys claiming they'd made the best album for years. My reply would be simple: no you didn't. A few good tracks, and some beautifully bizarre lyrics (“Club 18:30 for Julius Caesar / Lady Diana and Mother Teresa…”), but not even the best album of the afternoon, let alone a few years. Sorry boys.

Empire of the Sun Ice on the dune

Everyone always has the same worry: how will they manage that difficult second album.    When it came to Empire of the Sun, whose first album danced its way into my heart in 2009, I was never worried.  Their first album, with all its remixes and redesigns, was in fact their first, second and third album rolled into one, and they both went off and pursued various projects in between that first album and this new offering.  The greater concern for me was that, due to the stranglehold a certain company appears to have over the market, I has to wait longer than music lovers in the US and Australia to get my greasy mits on it. 

When I finally managed to get my copy, after much pushing back of the official date (don’t remember Woolworth’s ever doing that*) I instantly fell in love with it.  I’ve been trying hard to find a comparison, but can’t really.  It’s very simply defined: this second album is more grown up, more rounded, more complete.  This sounds like professional musicians in a studio; the first one now sounds like some very talented teenagers mucking about in the rich one’s bedroom – not that I don’t still enjoy the first one.

I really like this, and it was not enhanced by a sunbed listening, as everywhere I’ve listened to it I’ve really enjoyed it and discovered something fresh.  The lead track – Alive – is, in my humble opinion the stand out hit of the summer, and the hypnotic “I’ll be around” is further testament to the group’s ability to do romance in a denoument-of-a-1980s-film style.  Simply put, I love it.   

*I vividly recall rushing to Woolworth’s one Monday evening after school, eager to buy the latest Pet Shop Boys’ single (I think it was Domino Dancing).  This was on 7” vinyl – look it up kids.  I remember even now as Emma – a bloke, mate of Uncle Gary’s, never found out why they called him Emma, but I know that people still do to this day – ripped open the only-just-delivered new releases box with wild abandon so I could get my copy before anyone else in Kingstanding.  How does that sounds itunes?

Mind you, I can also vividly recall Emma doing a few other things with wild abandon, such as jumping on his Dad’s new car, and jumping from the roof of the second tier of the Holte End.  Did a lot of jumping, did Emma.

Foo Fighters  Skin and bone

Never got on with the Foo Fighters me.  Coming in around the same time as the pumpkins on MTV, I just never enjoyed it and never got involved, although I have always admired Dave Grohl’s abilities.  So, when I got the biography (see above) and it had waited a sufficiently long time on my to-read pile, I ploughed in.  I thought it was a brilliant book, a great testament to Grohl himself but also essential reading for that era in musical history. 
So, whilst reading all about its creation, I went back and listened to There is Nothing Left to Lose, their second album, which I had been given on its release.  I had listened to it before, but was left a little cold.  Upon a relisten, with some of the stories at my disposal, I enjoyed it a lot more, again without actually liking it, although I think I will give it a few more goes. 

The book talks the reader through the creation of every album, and the stories behind many key songs.  The album I was most interested in was Skin and Bones, an acoustic set recorded live, about which author Paul Brannigan speaks passionately.  Therefore, a quick download later, and it was stored ready for a day’s listen.  Which I will openly confess I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed. 

Of course, there’s the hits and a few fan anthems, but you don’t need to know the Foo’s back catalogue to enjoy and appreciate this.  It was the subject a few studious listens during the hols, and I am extremely grateful for being pointed in its direction.  As I plan a relaunch of my vinyl collection this winter, I am looking for this to be one of the first additions to my new, second vinyl collection. 

Nirvana Nevermind

This is my “I’ve never watched Star Wars” moment.  Apart from Bjork, when she was still a member of the Sugarcubes, grunge left me cold.  Stone cold. I tried everything, but it didn’t work.  At the time I was listening to New Order, the Prodigy and club and house music bordering on the verge of Pop (Uncle Gary never approved), and discovering Prefab Sprout, I could not understand why many of my secondary school class mates started to dress so scruffily, grow their hair, and listen to Nirvana.  Furthermore, on the day Kurt Cobain’s death was announced, the open weeping of teenagers left me bemused.  After all, we had only recently lost Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett, both of whom I thought were of greater loss.

Therefore, it was with much trepidation and angst that I attempted to listen to Nevermind.  I had enjoyed reading about it in the Dave Grohl book, but the narrative only served to remind me that I’d never listened to it, never even paid it a thought, and I thought that I should really try. 

So, one evening, with a glass of wine in hand, and, I shall confess, a little nervousness within (album lovers and music fans will know what I mean – I was genuinely concerned, desperate to like it) and some quiet space, I started to listen.

I made it to track 7.

I just did not like it.  At all.  Although I can appreciate the quality of the bass playing, and the insanity of some of the drumming, the rest just sounds dull to me.  One song repeated the same dull riff monotonously, and mentioned crackers.

I still can’t see why those teenagers dressed as they did, and why they cried so much.  But then, there’s probably another music blog somewhere equally uncomprehending of how people spiked their hair, sprayed it green, dressed sharply in loud and bright colours, and danced frenetically for hours on end.  And discovered Prefab Sprout.

So how did I resolve it?  How did I leave it, having failed such a big challenge.  I poured another wine, and  listened to Ice on the Dune by Empire of the Sun, for the umpteenth time. 

It was a wonderful holiday, thank you for asking, for lots of different reasons.  However, those snatched hours on a sunbed or a terrace rediscovering and reclaiming the format that is the album will keep me going throughout the dark nights of the winter. 

Of course, there are two or three albums I never leave alone.  Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago is especially personal.  The sheer haunting heartache of I trawl the Megahertz by Paddy McAloon will always stop me in my tracks, as will most of the Prefab Sprout oeuvre.  For me, Klaxon-esque blagging aside, the best album in years has been Metronomy’s The English Riviera.
Even though it will continue to grow, develop, evolve for the next generation, improve and, as the technology evolves, it will conitnue to come out in new formats, the album is a stylistic convention we should cherish.  Long may it last, even if it is in the headphones and heart of an old skinhead on his sunbed.