In the spirit of the fifty word fictions currently being posted by Chan over at A wild slim alien, here are some reviews of exactly that length – tips of the hat to my long-player listening so far this year. With the odd hand gesture or wrinkled nose thrown in.
The Shortwave Set – Replica sun machine
Seduced by the alethiometeresque cover, but disappointed by the frequency with which the wan, characterless vocals of Andrew Pettitt displace the considerably more elegant singing of Ulrika Bjornse. Danger Mouse production? Check. Van Dyke Parks string arrangements? Check. Tunes? Mostly. ‘Glitches ‘n’ bugs’, ‘Distant daze’ and ‘No social’ stand out.
Elbow – The seldom seen kid
In the last couple of years Elbow’s records have been surreptitiously stealing their way to the centre of my listening world. This confirms their place there with its high musicality and wry humour. Guy Garvey’s songs are lugubrious and beautiful, even managing to reanimate the corny image of the mirrorball.
DeVotchKa – A mad and faithful telling
Romany Mexican indie with Greek or Klezmer undertones, anyone? Not forgetting occasional forays into chamber and oompah band territories? Singer Nick Urata looks like a roughed-up cross between Clooney and Morrissey. One song – ‘The clockwise witness’ – is truly great, throwing off excessive stylistic colouring for an affecting shade of blue.
Carl Craig – Sessions
How long it’s been since I was lost in niteklub rhythm. For all that Craig is a master of dancefloor dynamics, Sessions ultimately feels relentless, at home or in car. It’s a relief when the end is near and the unpredictable rhythms of ‘Bug in the bass bin’ take hold.
Four Tet – Ringer
A river whose flow is as relentless as Sessions, but out of the current more is going on. I wish I had more time to relax into ‘Swimmer’’s patterns; fretted less about the time Kieran Hebden takes to develop his swirls and eddies. Moments of life that won’t come again.
Neon Neon – Stainless style
After the Rhys-Boom Bip collaboration on Blue eyed in the red room, and Gruff’s loveable Candylion, a disappointment. In evoking the worst aspects of the eighties, it’s loud, shiny, and as attractive as the boxy lines of the De Lorean car. But ‘I lust u’ achieves a Depeche Mode-esque melancholy.
Colin Meloy – Colin Meloy sings live
Just occasionally in these solo performances, Colin Meloy is one note short of a melody. Otherwise he conveys the best of the Decemberists – as well as Shirley Collins and the Smiths – with songwriter’s conviction, stand-up comedy and helpings of the ‘campfire singalong’ spirit that he declares he is aiming for.
The Last Shadow Puppets – The age of the understatement
The chief northern monkey and his best mate perform a Dukes of Stratosphearic take on Scott Walker (and indeed Brel through Scott’s distorting mirror); in their turtleneck sweaters they’re photo-fit go-getters. The result is a noirish existential beat group and the second of many reinventions Alex Turner may yet perform.
Goldfrapp – Seventh tree
I lost interest between Black cherry and the insistently decadent electro of Supernature. Fortunately the duo are aware of the benefits of reinvention and return; Seventh tree is closest in spirit to Felt mountain but with added folk sensibility and pop nous. ‘Little bird’ floats and ‘Caravan girl’ drives along.
British Sea Power – Do you like rock music?
Like Open season, this is eight-tenths of the way to greatness; if I were eighteen and at my first Glastonbury, I would wave my flag to it. But it’s as rock as the substance you’d mine were you to tunnel into Mount Blanc, and for me that remains a problem.
Paul Weller – 22 dreams
Press would have you believe that Weller has suddenly emerged from a lengthy spell in rock purgatory. Truth is he rediscovered his touch over the two preceding sets; you could not get more pastoral than ‘Pan’ on As is now. 22 dreams expands the lightness in familiar and fresh directions.
Portishead – Third
Top bombing from Barrow, Gibbons and Utley. The avant-garde attack of the electronics is reminiscent of New Order discovering synthesisers. Next time Portishead can worry less about making it impossible for anyone to countenance putting them on as dinner party listening; this is music with which to greet the apocalypse.
Robert Forster – The evangelist
The healing power of song – I’m so glad RF rediscovered it. But how could the tone be anything other than elegiac, with fragments of Grant’s last songs among Robert’s lyrical responses to his death. As we hear those last tunes, Robert sings ‘it was melody he loved most of all’.
Counter-intuitive it may be, but rather than hearing another paean to your favourite group it’s often more rewarding to read about why someone likes music with which you have no familiarity, that you are not interested in, or even actively dislike. It challenges your preconceptions, widens possibilities, enlarges your rationale for listening to music. Do it regularly enough and preconceptions are minimised and maybe even disappear.
When I came across Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, the title I was initially drawn to was Let it be, Colin Meloy’s memoir built on the raw and rugged substance of that album by the Replacements. I’ve never knowingly listened to the Replacements, and have only ever been mildly inclined to seek them out, despite a certain fascination with their fucked-up mystique. I was keen to learn more, and as curious to see how they were important to Meloy, whose group the Decemberists I have listened to as much as any since Alistair first mentioned them in dispatches on Tangents. How great it was to work my way through the songs of a writer whose twin fascinations were historical narrative and life on the ocean, putting these to work against a well-defined musical sensibility to say more about the 21st century than anyone else seemed to care to do.
As it turns out, few of Colin’s pages go into any detail about the actual sound made by the Replacements on Let it be, and nor does he go out of his way to say exactly why he was attracted to the music of the Replacements rather than that of x, y or z, save for a sense of identification; that being from Minnesota, the ‘Placemats’ must have endured the same frozen winters and backwater culture as the young Colin in Helena, Montana. They could be the band making the glorious racket in the garage down the street.
Colin’s story is all about agency and context – cultural, familial and social. He writes about how a love of music arises out of the ashes of childhood, how in adolescence that love becomes so engulfing that it blinds you to everything else, and how slowly but surely you determine that you must become a participant. At some point along the line you establish in your mind a connection with a band that are where you want to be. It doesn’t matter whether this connection is real or illusory; what matters is that it’s conceivable.
Colin might have taken his musical rites of passage further, to the point where he has established a fully-functioning band, rather than end it arbitrarily at the point when he dares to dance aged fourteen with a girl in a bar. But his take on Let it be captures something infrequently documented as well as it is here – the girl- or boyhood dreams, influences and life of the mind of a future musician. And as with the gliding narrative lyricism of his songs, he gives the reader enough to generate the universal from the specific, letting us draw our own conclusions and parallels.
Certainly I’ve a greater curiosity to hear Let it be having read Colin’s memoir, but its immediate effect has been to send me back to the Decemberists first three albums, reflect again on the slight disappointment of the fourth, The crane wife, on which their lightness of touch deserts them from time to time, and hope that this is restored on the fifth. While we await that, there’s the self-explanatory Colin Meloy sings live! to look forward to.