Saturday, May 31, 2014

A few words about "Held in Splendor", an album by Quilt.

You might expect a band bearing the name Quilt to be all soft, cozy and warm. This Quilt is not like that. This Quilt is raspy. It has sharp edges. This year, so far, has been relatively quiet (cf last year) in terms of major new records, and I have been enjoying Quilt's second album, "Held in Splendor", rather a lot, at least in the sense that I have been giving it considerably more airtime than I would have been able to do if it had been a busier time. In other words, I gave it the chance to bite me, and it did.

This gives rise to a question: what is the use of a record like this in 2014? The times that it harks back to were simpler times, certainly less saturated with readily available music, and the records that emerged from those times were instantly embraced and continue to be well regarded, perhaps even loved (perhaps even obsessively).

But these times are not those times, and a record like this, which is easy to listen to, easy to like, and which has oodles of memorable hooks and plenty of good old grunt, is as likely as not to get lost in the fog of the endless cycle of new releases. Which is what seems to have happened with "Held in Splendor": it has been made, with considerable care and love, by talented people who know the eras they evoke and who have taken pains to translate their favourite sounds of those eras into something the ears of today would be comfortable hearing, and yet it seems to be on very few people's radar, only a scant few months after its release, and may well end up appearing on few, if any, end-of-year lists. Its sales may or may not be enough to cover expenses. It is enough to break your heart.

Imagine if you made this record. How happy you would be. You gave it your best shot and came up with something you would be proud to hold up and say "I did this!" But the model is broken. Being good enough is no longer good enough. (Being anything other than a scantily clad pop tart may not be good enough any more. Oh the times we live in.) Of course, it's not always, or only, or ever, about money. Few of Quilt's obvious influences would have been able to dine out on the proceeds of their own record sales, but their records continue to live, breathe, and have influence even today. With so much music out there now, the chance of getting even that kind of traction has largely vanished.

But I sound like a broken record. It is what it is. You might as well tilt at windmills. People will continue to make music; their expectations of reward will be lower than before. Maybe that means people will make music for the right reasons: because they want to. For its own sake.

The record? It picks up the sounds of the late sixties (both the Byrds jangle and the 13th Floor Elevators oomph), and the sounds of the first generation to be influenced by those sounds (the so-called Paisley Underground of the mid-eighties, specifically the Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade, and the shaded overlapping area of that particular Venn diagram, Opal), and filters them through such of the sounds of today (and the recent yesterday) as Woods, Real Estate and, my perennial perceived precursor, Electrelane.

The neat trick they pull, perhaps with be above rant in mind, is to run many of the songs into each other, as if to snub their nose at the pick-and-mix attitude towards records of many of us these days; as if to say: here it is, take all of it if you like, or none of it, but don't just pick the eyes out of it. (The risk being that many people, faced with that choice, would opt for "none of it".)

Nevertheless, because this is where we are at, you can find individual songs on the internet. Here are a couple. I hope you like them. I think you would be hard pressed not to.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Things They Carried

Or, Fifty at fifty.

"Pink Moon", by The Chills.
"Wuthering Heights", by Kate Bush.
"Marquee Moon", by Television.
"1/1", by Brian Eno.
"Music for 18 Musicians", by Steve Reich.
"Trees and Flowers", by Strawberry Switchblade.
"Transmission", by Joy Division.
"Love Will Tear Us Apart", by Joy Division.
"Atmosphere", by Joy Division.
"Twenty Four Hours", by Joy Division.
"Blue Monday", by New Order.
"Party Fears Two", by Associates.
"What Goes On", by Velvet Underground.
"Dream Baby Dream", by Suicide.
"Are 'Friends' Electric?", by Tubeway Army.
"Candy Skin", by Fire Engines.
"Roadrunner", by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.
"Another Girl, Another Planet", by The Only Ones.
"I Feel Love", by Donna Summer.
"I Feel Space", by Lindstrom.
"Autobahn", by Kraftwerk.
"This Charming Man", by The Smiths.
"Tiny Tears", by Tindersticks.
"Jaffa Boy", by Birds Nest Roys.
"Circumspect Penelope", by Look Blue Go Purple.
"Ghost Town", by The Specials.
"Cruiser's Creek", by The Fall.
"Song to the Siren", by This Mortal Coil.
"Dr Mabuse", by Propaganda.
"Save Me", by Aimee Mann.
"Shivers", by Boys Next Door.
"Cattle and Cain", by The Go-Betweens.
"Sexy Boy", by Air.
"Brimful of Asha", by Cornershop.
"Eternally Yours", by Laughing Clowns.
"Revelator", by Gillian Welch.
"Don't Point That Thing at Me", by The Clean.
"Love's Not Good Enough", by Skyhooks.
"Golden Brown", by The Stranglers.
"Watching the Detectives", by Elvis Costello.
"New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)", by Simple Minds.
"A Forest", by The Cure.
"Uptown Top Ranking", by Althea and Donna.
"I'm In Love with a German Film Star", by The Passions.
"Back to Nature", by Magazine.
"Ever Fallen in Love", by Buzzcocks.
"O Superman", by Laurie Anderson.
"I Heard It Through the Grapevine", by The Slits.
"Baby I Love You So", by Colourbox.
"Map Ref 41°N 93°W", by Wire.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Hypothetical mixtape: June 2013

Gosh, it feels like only yesterday that we last had one of these. When, in fact, it must have been ages ago: I was only 49 then ...

"Feel It All Around", by Washed Out. Otherwise known as the theme music from "Portlandia", the show that skewers hipsters from the inside. To borrow a line from Whit Stillman, some of them think it's a documentary.

"Wishing You Were Here", by Chicago. From Portland to Chicago (see what I did there?). The calling card for this song reads: backing vocals by Al Jardine, Carl and Dennis Wilson. The Moog line is a bit weird, and, yes, I know, it's Chicago, but oh, those backing vocals ...

"Dream Captain", by Deerhunter. Deerhunter are no Beach Boys, but you can't deny that Bradford Cox has as fine an ear for melody as any songwriter of the "modern era".

"Gun", by Emiliana Torrini. From the album "Me and Armini", another song from which appeared on an ealier playlist. I am mesmerised by the cavernous largeness of the electric guitar on this song. I should probably just go out and buy the album.

"Tube Stops and Lonely Hearts", by Annie. It's not far from Iceland to Sweden, but the distance from the previous song to this one is like the journey from out of the darkness and into the light. Which might well not be even remotely grammatical. I hope nobody is watching.

"All That Matters", by Kolsch. What happens is, Kompakt keep tossing out these perfectly crafted pop songs in the guise of dancefloor fillers. Don't be fooled.

"Bipp", by Sophie. You can make pop songs out of the most unlikely of materials. This, for example, sounds like what you would get if you had sat down in 2013 to make a sequel to "Warm Leatherette" using most of the same raw materials. It sounds just as harsh as that, and just as in your face, but you can also carry it around in your head for days.

"Would You Believe", by The Hollies. I just mis-typed this as "Wold You Believe". That would make no sense at all, obviously, but wold is one of my favourite words. I wouldn't go so far as to say that this is one of my favourite songs, but it is very good, with its George Martin-esque ever-so-slightly avant garde string arrangement, its Bee Gees-esque vocals, and its Scott Walker-esque sense of drama. That's a lot of esques.

"Take It Easy My Brother Charlie", by Astrud Gilberto. It is always a pleasure to listen to the honeyed vocals of Astrud Gilberto. The song you (probably) know. The version you (possibly) don't. What are you waiting for?

"Besame Mucho", by Apollo 100. This month's WTF moment.

"Girl You Move Me", by Cane and Able. The first couple of minutes of this monster track come on like some serious Funkadelic doolally. Gradually it morphs into the kind of soul/funk thing that wouldn't be out of place on your blacksploitation soundtrack of choice. So it's all things to all people, really.

"Remember to Remember", by Rick Holmes. Actually, maybe this is this month's WTF moment. Who can tell? Nine minutes of slow groove that doesn't once deviate from its chosen path in all of that time, augmented by some very tasty synth noodling, and all the while operating in the service of Rick Holmes's recitation of lines / titles from various notables, from John Coltrane to Stevie Wonder to Sydney Poitier, ending with the plaintive cry of "How long will it take?". Recorded in 1981, it's like the Civil Rights movement never happened. Produced by Roy Ayers, no stranger to blacksploitation soundtracks himself.

"Poor Wayfaring Stranger", by Shelton Kilby. The groove on this might also suggest blacksploitation soundtracks, but don't be fooled: it is actually from an album of gospel music. If church sounded like this, I could, just possibly, be saved. What? What's that? It's too late? Damn. (Oops.)

"Water Wheel", by Steve Gunn. The title of this charming instrumental brings back memories of one of John Elliott's less successful business ventures. ("Wow, that guy's got a big nose", said the 14-year-old recently, on having a glimpse of the great man during a promo for one of those "grumpy old men" television programmes I can no longer watch on account of their being too close to home.) This is, of course, sheer coincidence and of no relevance whatsoever to anything. The appearance of Helena Espvall, of Espers (who have been much too quiet of late), on this album is more to the point, and suggests loosely where this music might be coming from: a generation of kids who grew up listening to John Fahey records, and to the whole psych / rock / folk late-sixties UK axis, but who, unlike recent predecessors bearing the "freak folk" and/or New Weird America tag, have chosen what to my ears is the preferred balance between Pentangle, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, on the one hand, and The Incredible String Band, on the other. But what do I know?

"Yuba Reprise", by Date Palms. English music of a particular type from the late sixties and early seventies continues, as this and the previous song illustrate, to provide a rich seam from which young prospectors, from generation to generation, continue to dig up gleaming nuggets. This song draws from a different lode, the same one, perhaps, that Spacemen 3 hit upon in the course of their own excavations 25 years previously. Well, as we say here much too often, "it's all good".

"The Viaduct (Kid Loco Remix)", by The Pastels. No matter how much music you listen to, there will always be vast tracts of arable musical land that you haven't had the chance to harvest. (Seems to be metaphor month around these parts.) Like, I know nothing about The Pastels. There, I said it. And anyway, I suspect they don't sound much like this. A languid 4/4 beat eventually trails off into wispy clouds of, um, bliss. It's a perfect way to finish this thing off.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Song of the day

"I Can't Hardly Stand It", by The Cramps.

You really should go to see "Only Lovers Left Alive", the new Jim Jarmusch film, while you have the chance. His films never stay on for long, and the last one, "The Limits of Control", was only screened in Canberra as part of the "Blink and You'll Miss It" series at the ARC, over summer, and on dates when we were interstate. (Which was a shame, because it was unusual for a Jarmusch film in being shot largely in broad daylight, and I would much rather have seen it as intended, on the big screen, than as I ended up seeing it, at home on the telly.)

"Only Lovers Left Alive", on the other hand, is of necessity filmed entirely at night, or in darkened interiors. This is because it is a vampire film, a genre of which I have seen precisely one film: this one. This makes me, of course, an expert. Well, it doesn't, but that's okay because this is not really a vampire film at all. It is, rather, a very sweet story -- a very sweet story that just happens to be about vampires. It is also a very funny film. It looks fantastic, as well, particularly the scenes shot outside, at night, in the streets of Tangier and Detroit. (Was that really Jack White's house?)

The male vampire lead, played by Tom Hiddleston, is a collector of vintage stuff, especially stuff relating to music, and the film might be taken at one level to be a lament for things having been better in the "old days". (So, it probably really was Jack White's house, then.) This includes listening to music on seven-inch, forty-five-revolutions-per-minute vinyl discs. It also includes preferring the obscure original to the better-known cover version. (And haven't we all done that?)

In this case, though, my vote is for the cover version. Actually, I didn't even know until watching this movie that "Can't Hardly Stand It" was a Charlie Feathers song (thus revealing that I don't watch Tarantino movies). And, perfectly in keeping with the tone of the movie as the Feathers recording is, I can only hear it through the prism of The Cramps, whose version I know better than I know my own name, and who probably themselves knew a thing or two about vampire movies. Plus, no band was more retro in the early eighties than The Cramps, which makes Jarmusch's choice of this particular song, for me at least, close to perfect: it posits that one person's retro is another person's modern travesty. Either that or he just happened to have a copy of the record lying around.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Song of the day

"Call It Ours", by The Legends.

I can't believe I haven't mentioned this song before, but such would appear to be the sorry state of things. Time to make amends then, by giving you the chance to be thrilled, as I am every time I hear it, by the sound of Swedish power pop laced with the spirit of C86. I also can't believe I first heard this song 10 years ago. I guess that makes it old. (Not old like me, though.)

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Dangling participle of the month

The description of one of the entries in the 2014 National Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery caught my eye. Its final sentence reads:

"Shot during the last few weeks of the season, the boys went onto win the EFL final."

In its earlier days, the New Yorker would regularly have a field day with this kind of thing, running them in order to fill space at the end of articles (in the days before electronic typesetting, it wasn't so easy to adjust the text of an article, fiddle with the size of cartoons, add or subtract incidental illustrations, etc, in order to get the the text of a story to end at the very bottom of the page).

The editors would almost invariably follow them with an arch and/or witty one-liner. In this case, mine would be something like: "Sometimes motivational speeches just aren't enough."

As for the exhibition, we are agreed that the portrait of Reg Mombassa should have won.

(And furthermore: there is a difference between "onto" (which it says) and "on to" (which it should have said). End of sermon.)

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Song of the (birth)day

"50 Year Old Man", by The Fall.

"I'm a fifty year old man,
What are you gonna do about it?"

For the next 12 months, this is going to be my answer to everything.

You have been warned.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Hypothetical mixtape: May 2013

Here we go again. Not really catching up, are we?

"Soul Confusion", by The Keith Mansfield Orchestra. With its groovy bass line and "funky drummer" beats, its Hammond lead-out, some breezy horns and a serious guitar solo, this would not have sounded out of place on a 1990s Karminsky compilation CD. Keith Mansfield, as you know, is one of the masters of British "library music". This one must have escaped from the library: it was released as a single in 1969.

"Side By Each", by Richard Torrance. This has a similar understated waltz-time melody line to the one made famous by Miles Davis on "All Blues", from "Kind of Blue", and subsequently put to good use by Tim Buckley on "Strange Feelin'". (I have a feeling Beck may have lifted it at one stage, too, but I can't put my finger on it (well, this is in 3/4 time and has pedal steel, but other than that it's not really a good reference point. Maybe I made that up).) But whichever way you cut it, to borrow a Richard and Linda Thompson album title, it pours down like silver. (Obviously, if you combine it (if you combine anything) with pedal steel I am like putty in your hands.)

"Roxy Roller", by Nick Gilder. Dude had a hit in Australia with "Hot Child in the City". This was his first solo single. I suspect he had been listening to T. Rex at this point.

"Golden Belt", by Marc Bolan. This recording is Bolan unadorned: just that voice and a flesh-piercing blast of electric guitar. Thing is, the T. Rex / Bolan sound is so singular that your mind is more than capable of filling in the missing pieces. Think of all the money they could have saved!

"The Everlasting First", by Love. Notable for the words "Jimi Hendrix on electric guitar". Which is enough for me.

"No Fun", by The Black Keys. Seven-inch single released for 2013's record store day, with the Stooges' original on one side and this (no) fun yet faithful cover on t'other. The Black Keys are an interesting proposition: they would appear to have managed the impossible task of infiltrating the top end of the charts while not deviating from their chosen path.

"Masters of War", by Mark Arm. "Masters of War" might be my favourite Bob Dylan song. Why? Its unrelenting bleakness would seem to be a neat fit with the early Bad Seeds, which is largely whence my interest in Dylan sprang, so that might explain it. Mark Arm, who probably also listened to a bit of Nick Cave in his day, takes the song and turns it into the kind of dirge that might have slotted very tidily into "The Firstborn is Dead". Love the song, love the version. Taken from a seven-inch single from the days when seven-inch singles set the tone.

"FixUrLifeUp", by Prince and 3rd Eye Girl. I haven't been looking, admittedly, but this might just be The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince's first certifiable earworm since the 1980s. Doesn't say "Jimi Hendrix on electric guitar" (see above) but you wouldn't have been surprised if it had.

"Look At My Window", by Flower Travellin' Band. These chaps appear for the second month in a row. This time, it's with an epic journey that almost asks for more than its allotted 10 minutes, and would have warranted it. You might locate it somewhere between Canterbury-scene prog and early Sabbath. I once worked on a theory that 1974 was the greatest year for rock music, but I am now leaning towards 1972-73 as some kind of high-water mark. Whatever. (Whenever?) It's all good.

"Get Out of My Life Woman", by Grassella Oliphant. Titular sentiment aside, this is a rip snorter. Grant Green on guitar, "Big" John Patton on the B-3: what could possibly go wrong?

"On a Clear Day You Can See Forever", by The Peddlers. More Hammond goodness: oo-wee baby.

"Angel", by Fra Lippo Lippi. Here is a song in what might be titled "high eighties" style (see also "The Captain of Her Heart", by Double, from two months back). How is it possible not to love that guitar sound? From Norway, as if to say that "high eighties" was the universal language.

"All You're Waiting For", by Classixx feat. Nancy Whang. In some ways this might be an update of "high eighties" (albeit more New Order than Sade). Regardless of its ancestry, though, it's got Nancy Whang on vocals, and, while we wait for the next Juan Maclean release, it will do nicely.

"Wonder (Ray Mang Mix)", by Rune Lindbaek feat Kurt Maloo. How many credited artists does it take to make a record? Do you wind up with music by committee? Who is steering this goddamn ship? Does it really matter? Not when the cover of the record depicts a moustachioed chap in a Viking helmet, surely.

"Renata (Daphni Remix)", by Holden. The lines that I thought existed between Dan Snaith's work as Caribou and his work as Daphni seem to have been blurred, or scribbled out, in this remix, which has much in common with the harsh resonances of the "Swim" album, by Caribou, whereas it is tagged as a "Daphni Remix". Well, who really cares? It's still the same guy, and it's still excellent music.

"Changes (James Blake Harmonimix)", by Mala. If Dan Snaith is now putting out similar music under different monikers, James Blake has spent the last few years putting out music of wildly divergent styles under the one name: his own. This remix continues the trend: I'm not sure where it would comfortably sit in relation to his vast body of work, but it is nevertheless a haunting and gorgeous piece of music that is, in its own way, I think, recognisably his. (Did I just contradict myself?) Contains, unless I am imagining it, which I suspect I am, perhaps just the tiniest hint of Laibach.

"Bodo (81)", by Mammane Sani. Fascinating: late-seventies synth music from Africa. Who knew?

"Wild Geese Descend on Level Sand", by Chuck Johnson. I got into solo guitar music by way of James Blackshaw, a few years back, but then, really, it first bit me many years ago when I started buying John Fahey records from second-hand record shops. Heathen that I am, I can't always (or ever) appreciate the technical know-how and, uh, "stuff" that can go into playing a guitar (although I am able to sense, listening to John Fahey in a live context, that it really can be a wrestling match between Man and Guitar, with no guarantee that Man will be the winner), so I tend to follow this type of music (well, most types of music, really) on account of whether it grabs me emotionally (not a connoisseur of "licks" and "chops", me), which this piece certainly does.