Saturday, February 21, 2004

It's old; it's cold; it's not very bold

This is the abbreviated version. Some points might be expanded upon in due course. But then again they might not. Don’t get your hopes up.

The first, and maybe the only, thing to say about 2003 is that Kraftwerk released Tour De France Soundtracks. In any year since 1986 this would have been News. However, as the leaves of the calendar have been torn off, year after year, since then, the likelihood (or not) of a new Kraftwerk record appearing has taken on something like mythical proportions. Most of us had not so much given up hope as consigned the whole idea to the Wishful Thinking basket. Some of us had in fact taken to dreading the idea; as time went on the likelihood of them coming up with something that was not either wildly disappointing or sadly self-parodic started to feel very slim indeed. It was a bit like the kinds of anxieties legions of J D Salinger fans no doubt suffer from when they contemplate the idea of his suddenly coming out of seclusion.

In the event, there isn’t much point writing about the actual record. If you need it, you will already have it. I couldn’t parse the thing anywhere near as well as Marcello Carlin did at Church of Me. Thanks to him I don’t need to. Suffice to say that if you have Man Machine, Trans-Europe Express and Computer World at the core of your collection, the new one will fit you like a favourite old cardigan, but one where the loose threads, moth holes and tobacco stains have been miraculously whisked away through the use of digital technology.

Which is not to say that nothing else got a look in. But when one’s record-buying budget is reduced to one CD a month, one tends to become a bit more conservative in outlook than one would necessarily like to be. Thus, the new Tindersticks record was duly acquired and appreciated for what it is (a refinement of the 1970s soul vibe of their last two albums with a bit more of their earlier angularity reintroduced to spice things up a bit - plus the unexpected appearance of the harmonica). Yo La Tengo released the follow-up to And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out - which obviously put them on a hiding to nothing (in my book that album is already in the canon) - and surprised us all with a disc of quiet, relaxing, unassuming, simple pop songs. And there’s nothing wrong with that ...

It seems like every year I make one particular discovery, or rediscovery. In 2000 I must have bought 20 second-hand Ed Keupper-related CDs, after having abandoned him after the slight disappointment of Serene Machine some years earlier (oh we pop music fans can be SOOOO fickle). 2001 was the year of Beck, who we knew would be good for us but whom we weren’t sure how to approach. It was “Deborah” wot did it. Then in 2002 we discovered Aimee Mann, thanks to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. 2003 was the year in which we let Manu Chao into our hearts. For all of its many virtues, the New Yorker doesn’t really have any kind of handle on popular music (although at least it seems to have abandoned the idea of Nick Hornby as pop music critic). But to its credit it listed a Manu Chao record in its favourites of 2002. I had this in the back of my mind when one day I stumbled upon Esperanza! in the local library. Knowing nothing about it, I took it home and put it on and, well, we just looked at each other as if to say “what is this??”. And we’ve never looked back.

Then, the second post-reunion Go-Betweens record built on the good parts of the first one - Robert and Grant are not yet back to (and may never be) the unified force they once were, but individually they remain two of the best songwriters and performers this country has produced and we can only be hugely grateful that they are giving it another go. (We also saw them live at Tilleys early in the year. I cried.) Ron Sexsmith put out Cobblestone Runway, yet another in his series of fine collections of songs marred by misguided arrangements/collaborators: Steve Earle last time, now it’s dance music (and an unnecessary duet with the singer from Coldplay). Ron also toured Canberra, and it was of course our duty to support him in this endeavour; in so doing he proved that his best angle is alone with a guitar. Can that really be so hard to sell? It worked for Bob Dylan. Meanwhile, the Necks continued their slow crawl towards world domination (viz. a recent piece on them in the Guardian) by releasing a four-cd box of live recordings from hither and yon, and, right at the death of the year, a new studio disc which, once again, sounds quite different from any of their other records. Every time they play Canberra we are either having a baby or out of town; if any of you are more lucky than I am, you should not pass up an opportunity to catch them live. If nothing else, it will make me extremely envious.

And so it’s on to 2004.