February 5th sees Firestation Records’ release of A retrospective by Emily, on both double CD and vinyl. I was asked to pen the sleeve notes, and happily obliged, what with ‘Stumble’ being among my favourite ever singles, and Rub al Khali one of my favourite ever LPs. It’s the first time on CD for both the single and the album.
Expertly transferred from vinyl (as opposed to inexpertly by me, which had initially threatened to be the case) owing to the master tapes being lost, the three songs from the ‘Stumble’ single sound fantastic, better than I could possibly have hoped. Rub al Khali also benefits from the absence of snap, crackle and pop, and remains a thing of wonder, as timeless and out of time now as it was when it was released 25 years ago.
If that weren’t enough, A retrospective additionally includes a selection of demos of varying sound quality and excellence, ranging from the group’s earliest recordings through to ‘You don’t say you need that’, a song which dates from long after Rub al Khali and gives a sense of what might have been had the album – not to mention singer-songwriter Ollie Jackson’s talent – garnered the attention it deserved. A number of otherwise unrecorded live favourites also grace the compilation, including ‘Merri-go-round’ in both its early and mature forms, the latter version having been scheduled as Esurient’s follow-up to ‘Stumble’. The track which closes the second CD is another highlight – a beautiful acoustic version of ‘Rachel’, one of the ‘Stumble’ B sides.
What the compilation sadly lacks is the Irony EP which Emily recorded for Creation Records in 1988, but ‘Mad dogs’ at the foot of this post stands in part to remedy that absence. To further whet your appetite, you’ll also find an outtake version of ‘Foxy’, the majestic opening song from Rub al Khali.
I’m proud to have been involved with the putting together of this release, but even if I had not been, I would still be wholeheartedly recommending it to you. Every (Pantry-reading) home should have one.
- Foxy (outtake version)
- Mad dogs (from the Irony EP)
- Really mad dogs (dance mix 1) (from the Something Burning in Paradise compilation)
- Pre-order A retrospective by Emily from Firestation Records (NB The Rub al Khali tracks are not included on the vinyl version of the release)
Let’s just pause right there, and linger over that word – esurient, meaning greedy or voracious. 17th century in origin, derived from the Latin esurire, and meaning to be hungry. What a beautiful word, and what a great name for a record label.
Esurient was run by Kevin Pearce, whose previous activities included the sharp, exceedingly literate fanzines Hungrybeat and The same sky. His view of pop music and any particular artist’s position in or outside its pantheon was, it is fair to say, uncompromising. To quote his own slogan, Kevin was ‘Esurient for change’. In my own fanzine of the time, writing about ‘Stumble’, I was unable to stop myself employing the phrase ‘the parturient Esurient’. Yes, for better or worse, we had both swallowed dictionaries in our youth.
I played this single so much – Oliver Jackson’s baritone booming out at all hours – that the Jamaican guy in the bedsit next door asked me if I was into opera.
Nearly every time Emily or label mates the Claim and the Hellfire Sermons played, I went along to see them. For the last Esurient event that I attended before leaving for a long sojourn in France, Kevin had managed to track down a copy of ‘Au revoir Daniel’ by Mireille Mathieu, and played it between the acts that night. It was that kind of gesture, that attention to detail which made Esurient special (and in those days to source a song wasn’t anything like as easy as typing in ‘Au revoir Daniel’ into YouTube either).
In 2008 I wrote in rather long-winded fashion about ‘Stumble’ and its B sides, ‘Boxing Day blues’ and ‘Rachel’. I quoted myself there from a 1998 piece on the Hellfire Sermons for Tangents: ‘‘Stumble’ is one of the best singles ever, and ‘Merry-go-round’, the greatest single never released.’ In 2003, 14 years after its release, Leonard Roberge of the Washington City Paper said that ‘Stumble’ was ‘Astral weeks in four minutes instead of 47’. The song has travelled and stayed with me and a few others through time. I have imagined putting together a compilation consisting of different takes of ‘Stumble’ – from the initial demo to the innumerable versions captured and recorded live, which ranged from acoustic with congas to ferocious four piece savagings. I’ve heard the song in my dreams. Dammit, I’ve even played it in my dreams; and in waking hours, I don’t play the guitar.
At this distance I can hear the odd flaw – occasionally straining for effect, Ollie shows himself to be the young, relatively inexperienced singer that he was, while the emotional psychodrama of the lyric leaves it somewhat ambiguous as to who is doing and who is being done to (is the wail of ‘Let me see you’ the plaint of the spurning or the spurned lover – a surprise ending or effectively reported speech?) but nevertheless, were I to be foolish enough to make such a shortlist, ‘Stumble’ would be right up there in the top five of this selection of 45 45s, and I still believe it deserves to be far better known than it is.
Step-stepping across the ether, I came across Berlin Dancing, an unlikely moniker for a singer out of Waterford, Michigan. Madeleine Isabelle Sullivan sings maybe not so much the blues as songs of sweetened angst. The one that particularly stands out on her MySpace is ‘Methods of anxiety’. I like it as a reaction to over-performed music (though I should say my next post is probably going to be about someone who performs to the full). And you can tell it’s written by someone as yet not entirely familiar with writing songs, but the feel of the whole hints at something special. Something blue – the vulnerability of Syd Barrett without the unhinged edge, the emotion of Karen Dalton without the sense of resignation or defeat.
Berlin Dancing is a little lost in the wilderness of MySpace, and I just wanted to throw Madeleine a note of encouragement, for what it may be worth. She may decide not to go anywhere with it – there’s something in her voice that suggests as much – but I hope that she does. If she can couple more songs like ‘Methods of anxiety’ and ‘Sleep it off’ to her beautiful voice, and let the world have them, well, that would make me and at least one other person happy.
Somehow Berlin Dancing put me in mind of old favourites Emily, and what I believe is a relatively recent song by Oliver Jackson, the group’s singer and songwriter. The song I’m posting comes from a disc of outtakes and solo recordings, but otherwise it’s shrouded in mystery. It has two distinct parts, and it repays a lot of listening. I can’t even tell you what it’s called – let’s go for ‘The one with the whistled intro’. The lyrics are slurred, indeterminate, as if either the feeling is more important than its exact expression, or the words were provisional, there being no driving imperative to finalise them. I don’t even know when in the last five or ten years it was recorded, though I suspect it predates Bon Iver’s For Emma, forever ago, whose mood of redemption sought among the ruins of heartbreak the song shares. Some other songs which I guess date from the same period are on show at the Emily MySpace, but this for me is the best. On it Ollie travels a little of the way along the road that Tim Buckley took with Starsailor, but unlike Tim, who was at the time of that album’s recording sure of at least a few receptive ears, what comes out is aware only of itself, speaks only to itself, and in so doing Ollie achieves perhaps a purer blue, a purer black than Buckley ever did.
And that’s what connects an Emily song to Berlin Dancing, to someone just starting out, finding her voice and her feet, singing for herself rather than her supper.
At the foot of Pantry For The World’s editorial page, I wrote ‘Some days I listen to but one song, once. That song is “Stumble”…’ That song, as regular readers of Backed with will know, is by Emily, and is available for download here. The words led into the next page, which reported on ‘Doing it for the Kids’, the Creation all dayer at the Town and Country Club (as the Forum in Kentish Town was then known).
‘That day, six minutes stood apart from the other six hours…’ This hyperbole is a bit harsh on Felt and the Jasmine Minks, who also played that day, and on Momus, whose thing was in no way comparable with anyone else’s. But I was right about Emily, and I’m glad I captured my excitement in print around the time they were taking off.
I was heading for a fall, pooh-poohing high pitch bleat-squealing sax. It wasn’t long before I was listening to Coltrane, Coleman and, in Archie Shepp, the high priest of high pitch bleat-squealing sax.
With surprisingly neat sequencing, the ‘Doing it for the kids’ piece was followed by one called ‘Doing it for God’, which compared and contrasted Momus and McCarthy, about whose second album, The enraged will inherit the earth, I was incorrigibly harsh. There’s just no pleasing some people.
My innovative design feature for Pantry For The World was to insert a portrait A5 page between the A4-sized pages 2 and 3, with the same layout at the other end of the magazine. The two photos of Emily were positioned one above the other so as to create a flick-book effect if you quickly raised and lowered the A5 page: see Emily play!
Alistair has been posting live recordings of the triumvirate of groups who recorded for Kevin Pearce’s Esurient label, along with the handbills produced to advertise the shows. In the absence of the half-dozen long-players that collectively the trio should have gone on to make, these sets formed part of my staple listening for many years. Subsequently whenever I’ve dug them out of the Pantry vaults, they have had the power to remind me of what I believed then – that on their night each was the best band on the planet. The tapes may now have become a myriad of bits compacted into a file, but they have lost none of their wow and flutter. Though very different from each other, what all three groups had in common was the ambition of their song-writing and the attacking edge with which they performed; the same edge and attack that led to the creation of their record label. You knew in your heart that group and audience were the outermost of outcasts, hanging by a finger from the bottom rung of a ladder each were ambivalent about climbing, but these upstairs rooms above pubs – whether Horse and Groom or King and Queen – were the pitch for some of the most intense musical experiences of my life. So intense that that for sanity’s sake I had to take a break from attending the Esurient shows. Not being there was of course worse than the frustration I felt in the ineluctable sense when I watched them that these groups were never going to be allowed to rise above the level they had attained in finding someone who had enough belief in their greatness to stage their shows and put out their records.
They were joyful nights by and large but at its most intense, and when you are at your most susceptible to its intensity, there is as much pain as pleasure in music. That’s what I still hear when I listen to either of the live versions of Emily’s ‘Stumble’ that Alistair has made available to a world which, I suspect, will be about as interested as it was near on twenty years ago. But you’ll be pleased to hear I’m over it now. Honest.