Sunday, February 24, 2013

RIP Kevin Ayers

Kevin Ayers, significant figure amongst the Canberbury fringe of the UK prog rock scene, has died at the age of 68. 68, from where I sit now, is not old. My mother died at 68. She wasn't old. On the other hand, she didn't live the rock'n'roll lifestyle, and was never addicted to anything stronger than a small square of Swiss chocolate every night after tea. Perhaps the life expectancy of musicians differs from that of farmers' wives.

I didn't know much about the Canterbury scene, but I did have Kevin Ayers in my record collection from surprisingly early on: so early, in fact, that I didn't really know what to do with him. The record was "June 1, 1974". I bought it for the Brian Eno tracks, was scared out of my wits by John Cale, mesmerised by Nico, and failed to grasp Ayers at all (he takes up all of side two, so an entire side of vinyl lay virtually unplayed). So little did I acknowledge his presence that when I finally discovered "Joy of a Toy" I failed to make any connection whatsoever between it and the guy on side two of "June 1, 1974". I had some catching up to do.

Nevertheless, I hope it is reasonable to observe that with the loss, now, of both Ayers and Barrett a large part of that particular generation's supply of British eccentricity has left the building.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Song of the day

"Ohm", by Yo La Tengo.

I probably don't mention Yo La Tengo anywhere near as often as they deserve; it seems like every three years since forever a new YLT album has appeared, each as compelling in its own way as the ones that came before, and yet each is as familiar as a favourite old, worn blanket.

What is the difference between YLT and bands like Sonic Youth or Stereolab? Each of them have had long, stellar careers. Their later albums are in no way inferior to the earlier works that made their names, and in every case are instantly recognisable as the work of nobody else but them. Nevertheless, there is no reason why you would listen to, say, "Murray Street", good and all as it is, when you could be listening to "Daydream Nation" for the gazillionth time. Likewise Stereolab (insert equivalent comparators here). Not so Yo La Tengo: it seems, with them, that no matter how many times, when listening to whatever at the time is their brand new record, you can play "name the older YLT song this corresponds with", their most recent album is always the one you want to listen to. No, I can't explain it. Perhaps the three year gaps are the secret ingredient.

"Fade", the new one, is no different. Familiar Yo La Tengo tropes abound. There's the "Season of the Shark" song. The "Sugarcube" one. The "Autumn Sweater" one. The ones (happily) that bear distant echoes of my personal favourite YLT album, "And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out", with its crepuscular Gregory Crewdson cover photograph and matching aural mood. (Their cover art is always first rate, too. These folks have impeccable taste. And speaking of Stereolab, I should mention that production this time is by John McEntire, who was largely responsible for the sound of a high number of essential Stereolab records.)

"Ohm" is a good way into the album. It is basically a circular, mantra-like riff that runs through a number of, let's call them verses anyway, before Ira finally lets loose some of the feedbacked guitar you've been waiting for, then the vocals come back, it builds a bit, then stops. In under seven minutes it, like the whole of the album, is relatively concise by YLT standards (the album probably clocks in a good 30 minutes shorter than most!). You would imagine that they could easily have run it out to 15 minutes with no diminishing returns. (I am surprised to note that the live versions that presently appear on YouTube are, if anything, shorter than the recorded version.) This restraint, I think, works in its, and the album's, favour. "Refreshing" doesn't just apply to fizzy soft drinks.

And I apologise if noting that the underlying structure of the song bears the slightest resemblance to "Son of the Father" spoils anybody's enjoyment of it.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Song of the day

"A Day's Pay For A Day's Work", by Darkstar.

Somewhere, Brian Wilson's lawyer is reaching for the telephone ...

It might be a tad early to be hanging out the "album of the year" sign, but, by crikey, if there is a record that chimes more with this listener than Darkstar's "News From Nowhere", well, it's going to be one cracker of a year. First this, then "m b v", then a new Miles Davis live box set wherein you can hear music change before your very ears, and shortly a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album that is, in a word, fascinating (although whether that is in a positive or a negative sense it's too soon to say). In the immortal words of Mike Williamson, "It's all happening".

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Song of the day

"What You Wanted", by Seapony.

The Feelies and Look Blue Go Purple had a baby and they called it rock and roll. Or jangle-pop. Or twee-core. Or ...

Tuesday, February 05, 2013


What were you even doing in 1991? It really does seem like a lifetime ago. (Literally so for some of you.) Did the internet even exist? I might have somewhere, but it didn't at our house. There was the radio, there were music magazines, there were nice, and knowledgeable, people working in any number of record stores. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there was "Loveless". (I'm not sure how this happened, but I made do with a taped copy of "Loveless" until around 2000, when I finally bought it on CD at the second-hand stall at Fyshwick Market. For a dollar. That is not a misprint.)

"Loveless". A goddamn mystery of an enigma of an album. All you wanted to do was turn it up, but the more you turned it up the worse it sounded. (This has been somewhat rectified by the reissue, but the underlying architecture of the thing remains as ungraspable as ever.) What "Loveless" did was open a door into an entirely new way to make "rock" music, a door which nobody since has been game enough to go through, or, if they did, they haven't known which direction then to go in and quickly crept back out again. (Exception: "Dreams Top Rock", by Pluramon.)

It is a door to which, seemingly, Kevin Shields possesses the only key.

Fast-(well, not that fast)-forward to early 2013. Most of us thought it would never happen or that, if it did, the 22 years gestation would result in some over-cooked stew that could only taint the reputation of its forebear.

I really shouldn't do this, given my almost perfect track record of fatally misreading albums on first listen (Exhibit One: writing off "Remain In Light", first time through, as a disco record). But recording one's first impressions of "m b v" seems to be today's little parlour game, so here are mine. The listening conditions: once through. On computer speakers. While somewhat distracted by other things. (Promising, yeah?)

The bulk of this record sounds much as you would have expected a follow-up to "Loveless" to sound. The songs are new, but the template is instantly recognisable. New corners of the MBV sound-room do seem to have been illuminated, but for the most part the album doesn't seem to have unlocked yet further doors. Not that it needed to. But this does induce thoughts along the lines of "What took you so long?" On the other hand, there is a song that sounds like nothing so much as Stereolab heard through 200 layers of gauze. And then there are the last two songs on the album, which are perhaps the point of the thing: two songs that sound like nothing, or at least no music, you have ever heard before. I don't know what they mean, and I'm not even sure how to listen to them. They might even represent the End of Music. One can hope they represent, for Shields, a way forward.

And that, really, is all I've got to say about it. For now.