62. HOWLING BELLS – HOWLING BELLS (2006)

Indie / Alternative, Rock Music

HOWLING BELLS – HOWLING BELLS (2006)
It’s been widely accepted for some time now that “indie” has become a completely meaningless term, yet still the notion and concept persist.
Leaving aside the factual definition of a small record company’s business model and distribution method, the idea of indie-as-genre first evolved from Stiff, Factory, Step Forward and unnumbered others taking the practical step of recording, financing and distributing their own music to maintain it on their own terms and to pre-empt likely, though by no means inevitable, rejection by the majors of sounds that were in the main untutored and untroubled by anxiety over chart placings  or courting the approval of a music establishment that was even sleazier and more putrid than had been apparent at the time.
At this point, the sound of indie labels was a loose, labyrynthine but endlessly rewarding aggregation of punk, electronics, R & B (another term to have since mutated beyond recognition), funk and myriad other items tipped into the soup.
Sometime around 1985, the definition was put on a far tighter rein – mirroring the retreat of the best mainstream pop from loose-limbed adventurism to lumpen, profit-chasing garishness – and indie came to mean guitar-based music in thrall to either the Byrds and post-Cale Velvet Underground on one hand or Captain Beefheart on the other. The former definition became preeminent and solidified at the end of the decade with the precipitous rise of the preposterously overrated Stone Roses, a good band – nothing more, nothing less – completely unequal to the ludicrous hosannas  made on their behalf.
With the arrival of those who haplessly aped the even more overestimated Oasis, what had previously set this music apart from the mainstream – adventure, openness, empathy, quest – had been whittled down to a proscribed set of approved sounds and postures which resulted in utterly unremarkable music and which  came to be known by the 21st century as landfill indie, though I crave the indulgence of offering my own coinage –  I called it Gumby indie, as its oafish grunting unavoidably reminded me of the same in the Monty Python creations.
By the middle of the millennium’ first decade, Arctic Monkeys were perceived as the stationery-shovers but while they were several cuts above the sludge, owing in no small part to Alex Turner’s lyrical dexterity, they still weren’t quite what was needed. Around the same time, the saviours indie didn’t know it had quietly appeared – from Sydney, Howling Bells.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why they grabbed hold of the essence of this music when so many others hadn’t even come close. It’s an indefinable quality- there may once have been a time when I’d have felt able to call it the X factor without blanching – but it involves things like style, panache, a sense of dynamics and, quite simply, a strong feel for songwriting and melody. The absence of these things isn’t necessarily a problem in itself – some of the greatest music ever made has had little tune to speak of – but if you’re just going to make a noise, you’d better have some substance to it and the sheer gormlessness of so much of what was peddled meant it held so few surprises and made so few demands on the listener that it barely seemed to exist.
And so Howling Bells and their dense, layered sound – which supports the songs rather than hanging around on its own – slotted briefly but perfectly into the formidable roster of Simon Raymonde’s Bella Union for their first album. The cover art reflects what lies inside – an illustration of an owl in a tree being pursued, with nefarious intent, from a ladder; it’s such an authentic French-and-American-revolution period pastiche that I was surprised to discover it was actually commissioned for the album and, similarly, Howling Bells grapple so skilfully with their largely ’80s/early ’90s influences that it seems of a piece with them, while still being unmistakably 21st century.
Take opener The Bell Hit, which has an almost stage musical feel, a doleful intro (curiously reminiscent of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were The Days – or, if you prefer, Dorogoi Dlinnoyu, the Russian folk song it’s based on) giving way to a jazzy sashay which could support an unwelcome singalong in the wrong circumstances but, left to its own devices, casts a sunburst into the sorrowfil refrain “Promises are empty in a world of empty bliss.”
There’s palpable contrast in Low Happening – the first of the album’s four singles- where two of the more obvious Howling forebears, Pixies and PJ Harvey, swerve around each other in brilliant discord on the album’s most blatantly abrasive moment. It’s run close, though, by Blessed Night, where Juanita Stein sets out what resembles an abridged version of the non-credo of John Lennon’s God but still grasps for something, or someone, to take her belief to (“Don’t believe in the stories I hear/Don’t believe in the things you fear/Give me strength/Give me time/Give me you, now”) against a simple but inescapable Spanish/Moorish guitar figure from her brother, Joel, and Glenn Moule’s drum pattern spelling out a dire warning.

The nocturnal theme recurs on The Night Is Young,  where Juanita darts in a breath from desolate (“When I needed you to stay/Drove your car the other way”) to defiant – with a nifty mixed metaphor for good measure (“Oh,me – don’t you worry about me/Got a pocket full of wisdom up my sleeve) in one of the most expressive and affecting voices of recent times. She doesn’t quite sound Australian but neither does she sound Pom and definitely not faux-American; she sings in a human accent, with no need for subtitles.
Setting Sun, the first toll of the Bells I ever heard, is the most markedly commercial song here but still retains oddness in a rhythm that piledrives even as it’s hushed, a solo from Joel which as uncomplicated as the one on Buzzcocks’ Boredom yet still yields up subtletly, and Juanita capturing the frustration of running out of time while being resigned to it happening: “One more day’s not enough to change the world/But we’ll rise and fall beside the setting sun.” There’s probably a mathematical formula that can unravel why this wasn’t a hit; maybe there’s a generous prize on offer for another formula to make it the hit it’s not too late for it to be.
Four albums in now, that hit continues to elude Howling Bells but the definition of what makes a hit is narrower and more predictable than it’s ever been. The web-driven collapse of the conventional music industry should have cleared the way for uninhibited adventure but conservatism still holds sway. Howling Bells may not be avant-garde but they’re vastly inventive and stand as a reminder of what’s still possible, as well as the solar system of difference in music between being ambitious and having ambition. Howling Bells, like much indie worthy of the name – and like the best of any genre – are ambitious; Gumby indie merely has ambition, for sales, for ever-vaster venues, for heavy rotation – for tedium. Hear Howling Bells – hear the difference (PG).

55. DO THE COLLAPSE – GUIDED BY VOICES (1999)

Indie / Alternative, Rock Music, Uncategorized

DO THE COLLAPSE – GUIDED BY VOICES (1999)
As a comparatively unloved record in the discography of a comparatively unregarded band, Do The Collapse is in something of a double bind. For a band who had earned renown for unvarnished, elliptical, sawn-off songs, being produced by RicOcasekoftheCars, pedlar of incorrigibly MTV fodder, seemed imponderable and impardonable to some, like Lester Bangs agreeing to do a column for the Saturday Evening Post, particularly following the departure of deputy chief songwriter Tobin Sprout.
The sheer prolificacy of GBV and their penchant for brevity  meant they were not immediately packageable but their irresistible way with a melody offered a chink of light to the mainstream – but it doesn’t take much for sellout to be entered on the charge sheet. Furthermore, selling out can be highly relative – Can were accused of it after they joined Virgin, even though they were still capable of breaches of the peace like Unfinished and Animal Waves. Some considered The Fall to have become a pop band in the years when Brix was chief song officer but a world in which Lay Of The Land and US ’80s/90s are pop songs is one which does qualify as wonderful and frightening. And hadn’t Ocasek, two decades earlier, applied a gloss to Suicide’s second album which made it superficially more accessible than their peerless debut but, on closer inspection, retained most of its panic, tension and threat intact?
It’s apt to mention the Fall when discussing GBV, as the simplistic equation I’ve been known to offer for them is “music by Paul Westerberg, lyrics by Mark E Smith.” Robert Pollard’s lyrics and titles devour and defile language in a similar manner to Mark E Smith’s, although it’s his rueful delivery that nudges him in the direction of Westerberg – in fact, the trajectory to Do The Collapse’s measured disarray from, say, the tunefully ragged 1994 EP Clown Prince Of The Menthol Trailer, runs parallel to the path the Replacements staggered along from Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash to All Shook Down.
I purchased Do The Collapse on a whim a few weeks after its 1999 release, reasoning that, while I’d always been impressed and intrigued by GBV, apart from Clown Prince I owned nothing by them and a new album would be a sensible place to start. The years seem to have hardened the cognoscenti consensus that Bee Thousand (which enjoys the accolade of being the subject of a volume in the Thirty Three and A Third book series) or Alien Lanes are the GBV albums against which all others are measured. I’m open to persuasion on this but they were – and remain – less familiar than I’d prefer them to be and I was able to approach Do The Collapse on its own terms.

About two and a half (more of this in a moment) of the songs could have been ripe for MTV mutilation and were within the grasp of Virgin (now Absolute) Radio’s scaly fingers and shrivelled, shrunken playlist but, mercifully, they escaped and I knew this was a far richer, more lasting and more rewarding proposition than flavourless, dehydrated contemporaries (not peers) like Fountains of Wayne or Semisonic.
The two whole songs, though, did reach, perhaps unwitting, wide audiences by other means. Opener Teenage FBI, robotically limbed and with rare lyrical directness, found its way on to the Buffy The Vampire Slayer album (though not, as I understand, the programme itself). The thrust and melody resonate with the driven-in line “Someone tell me why,” though behind the youthful doubt of the phrase, part of me also hears the teacher that Pollard remained for years after forming GBV demanding an explanation for undelivered homework – a brilliantly baffling duality.
The other most radio-ready song, Hold On Hope, would be easy to characterise as a just-add-water Everybody Hurts, a calculatedly poignant work designed to overlay emotionally manipulative montages in reality shows and dramas alike. Except that, firstly, even after two decades of grievous misuse, Everybody Hurts survives as a genuinely moving, throat-swelling song; secondly, the same description applies to Hold On Hope, and thirdly, the hospital series it soundtracked was not the blustering Gray’s Anatomy but a rare moment of pathos in the endearingly silly Scrubs.

The 50:50 split comes in Liquid Indian, where the verses don’t seem too bothered what you think of them, with glowering riffs hoisting lines like “Soft clay orifice quivering like new structures and formations” before the invasion of a chorus which could have stadiums from Shea to Shawfield levitating through nothing more than repetition of a title which seems to celebrate an ink used as a drink – surely the most radical transformation since Lucozade morphed from a pick-me-up for sickly children into an elixir for the modern superathlete. The David verse battles back but the Goliath chorus rises again – it all ends in a draw but there’s no time to go to penalties as there’s too much happening elsewhere…
For instance: Zoo Pie helps itself to the coda of the Clash’s Garageland and has Pollard hollering through a bullhorn in a particularly belligerent moment; Mushroom Art sees him confessing vulnerably “Living without you is difficult” before the odd old instincts kick in and he elaborates: “Cloud faced oldman winking/You see, he tests me.” Its already measured riff is slowed further still on In Stitches, where he promises “Human amusement at hourly rates,” in tandem with a menacing backing vocal which has its flock of wrath turned away by a delicate tremolo. Dragons Awake!, with acoustic guitar, strings and Lennonesque vocal reverb, is less psychedelic than its title promises but is still as close to that status as GBV get, while Things I Will Keep lists, veers and swerves like Prime Husker Du.
And it all came out on Creation, in its very last days. The label may not actually have been brought to the brink of financial bankruptcy by the procrastination of Kevin Shields but creative bankruptcy was definitely wrought by general post-Morning Glory hubris – the recruitment of veterans GBV and Ivor Cutler were just about its only inspired moves at this time.
GBV themselves collapsed afterwards and did so again after a recent reactivation but the songs have never stopped pouring out of Robert Pollard and this prolificacy is almost a recommendation in itself. It’s well- known that actor Paddy Considine is an enthusiastic champion of theirs, perhaps less so that, when Daniel Radcliffe was once  invited to disclose the contents of his MP3, a couple of stray GBV tunes were revealed to lurk within. Since then, he’s gone on to play Allan Ginsberg, one of the great American poets of the 20th century – a category I’d contest Robert Pollard has a powerful case for belonging in (PG).

52. A BELL IS A CUP – UNTIL IT IS STRUCK – WIRE (1988)

Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk

A BELL IS A CUP – UNTIL IT IS STRUCK – WIRE (1988)
Firstly, a health warning – listening to A Bell Is A Cup… has been known to make one of my TNPC colleagues feel unwell. I can relate to this – hearing (Shambeko! Say) Wah!’s Remember can still, more than 30 years after the event, resurrect the waltzer-induced nausea I felt the day I bought it, coming straight from the Kelvin Hall carnival. However, Wire’s fifth studio album – and the second following their 1985 reformation – is a record I’m fortunate enough to be able to listen to without the need for Anadin or a damp cloth on the fevered brow.
Not sure if the same can be said of Wire themselves. Their decision to reunite has since become pretty much expected eventually of all bands that part company ( including some that should absolutely never have added their unnecessary footnotes – this means you Beatles, Velvets, Pistols). At the time, it was highly unusual; rarer still was their flat refusal to play any of the music that had made them such a thrilling and infinitely challenging proposition in their first incarnation of the late ’70s.
They’ve since relented to some degree and their live sets are now speckled with returns to these years but this can’t be taken for granted – a plea for Outdoor Miner (or Outside Miner, as the hapless heckler named it), the closest they’ve ever had to a hit, was studiously ignored when they played King Tut’s in Glasgow in 2013.
But this wasn’t wilful perversity – while many would characterise it as such, it was simply Wire doing what came naturally to them. Genuinely uncompromising, they had little or no interest in going back over the same ground once it had been seen and done, leaving the past to be dealt with by the Ex-Lion Tamers, who would now be lost in the thickets of the dubiously-named tribute band industry but in the mid-’80s had only the Bootleg Beatles for company as they supported the no-rear-view Wire. How quickly a high-concept idea can become mainstream…
And anyway, Wire had unfinished business, having come to an inconclusive halt in 1980, and by 1985 , their prodding and goading of the commonplace was needed more than ever. While it extended possibilities and created a new language – and Wire were more responsible for this than most – punk ultimately “destrrrrooooooyed” nothing, at best knocking some things temporarily unconscious. It would be fatuous, simplistic and, in fact, wholly inaccurate to describe it as any kind of cavalry charge but there was much rejoicing at their return and the manner of their returning. Their name was being heard in unlikely but intriguing places, cited as an influence by REM and the Minutemen. It seemed odd that this most British, European and bluesless of bands found such favour in America but these bands were part of a thoughtful and open new breed who were as intent on slaying predatory old rock beasts as Wire were themselves.
But Wire had to adapt to new surroundings to an extent. Wilson Neate’s comprehensive band history, Read And Burn, tells of a fraught and fractious process in recording their “second debut,”  The Ideal Copy, in Berlin, with old tensions reignited, particularly between Colin Newman’s penchant for pop hooks and the proclivity of Graham Lewis and, especially, Bruce Gilbert for more challenging, abstract sounds. Certainly, the results were uneven – Madman’s Honey (which Neate scorns with pitiless adjectives like “egregious,” “sickly,” “polite”) is, to my ears, a mesmerising work which resembles little else in popular music; conversely, Ambitious is lyrically intriguing (it donates the album’s title and its avalanche of acronyms – “CIA, DNA, KGB-” cements the notion of the band resembling a crack research group or a deep-cover spy cell. Musically, though, it’s something of a mess, Lewis’ roar of “Are  you hot? Are you hot? I FEEL AMBITIOUS!” veering uncomfortably close to another Anglophiles’ favourite, Basil Fawlty and the whole thing feels dated in a way no Wire music ever should be.
A Bell Is A Cup… arrived the following year as a far more rounded and cohesive statement, with a consistency of tone which creates  not  monotony but instead a sense of Aristotelian unity of time, place and action. In turn, it’s their most monochrome album since their 1977 debut, Pink Flag; by 1979’s 154, they were deploying texture and colour at Matisse level but A Bell Is A Cup… seems sketched in pencil. In keeping with this, Q’s review opined that it appeared to be “based on maths,” which, like the horse’s head sculpture on the cover, brings us back to ancient Greece, a time  and place where maths was not a trial for school pupils but a branch of philosophy, bound up with extensive thinking on the human condition – something Wire have always been pretty good at.
Take Kidney Bingos which, in the practice of the times, appeared as a single a few months earlier. It’s the final panel of a triptych, begun a decade earlier with Fragile and continued with Outdoor Miner, of unfeasibly melodic yet lyrically labyrinthine songs. Words, phrases are tossed out, making by turns no sense and perfect sense (“Dressed pints, demon shrinks, bread drunk, dead drinks”) intoned by Newman in the angelic voice which came to the fore on Chairs Missing and gradually superseded his “other” droll, simulated Cockney tones which are more or less entirely absent on A Bell Is A Cup.The verse, the solos, so sublimely tuneful, and: chorus! “Money spines, paper lung/Kidney bingos, organ fun.” The code is cracked and revealed as a macabre Twilight Zone fantasy (only just) of vital organ jackpots and severe medical economics, as the melody reaches an exquisite peak. At the end of 1988, I declared it my single of the year, in the face of competition ftom The Mercy Seat, You Made Me Realise and Gigantic. Depending on the mood of the day, I  can still find myself standing by that decision.

Second single Silk Skin Paws kicks off the album and is sterner, more unblinking but still entrances. Like Kidney Bingos, it has a surefooted gait driven by the ultra-minimal but vastly inventive drumming of Robert Gray, aka Gotobed (his pared-down kit of snare, hi-hat and bass drum attracted considerable attention at the time; he would eventually be usurped altogether by programming before returning post-millennium). It’s steely and gossamer in equal measure, sighs as much as it hisses and has the elegant precision of a sculpture. It did not chart. But it was a very pleasant, albeit unexpected, surprise, to hear it given an outing at King Tut’s earlier this year.
Worthy of particular attention are the two closing tracks. Follow The Locust is one of Wire’s  most purely exhilirating moments, hurtling on a bullhorn-force bass synth riff as Newman delivers a quizzical account of travel that resembles perpetual motion and continues their exemplary record for songs about insects. Its barreling momentum hints at some of the more uncompromising moments of their, by then, labelmates Depeche Mode and is a harbinger of One Of Our Girls Has Gone Missing, the gloriously evocative gem Gilbert created the following year with Wire associate and sometime video director Angela “AC Marias” Conway.
Closer A Public Place stands out for its stillness and air of desperate calm fending off unbearable tension. The actions switches, verse by verse, from a vignette witnessed late at night in King’s Cross railway station to the absurd but all too present menace of “privet hedge pissers” and “village boy wide men” and the strange but compelling image of “broken promises/drifted into the shape of footprints.” Meanwhile, the lead guitar soothes, the rhythm guitar snarls and a synth drone hovers like a sentry. It’s rhythmless, apart from the clatter Gotobed goads out of found percussion, similar to what’s heard on Pink Flag’s Strange (covered by REM a few months earlier) but this is no nostalgic, and certainly not an ironic, wink tipped to the past – it’s Wire finding the late ’80s every bit as “not quite right” as the late ’70s and delivering a sombre but eloquent verdict as only they can.
Nostalgia, you say? Wire’s reconvening would have been utterly pointless if that’s what it was about but this is how some would have had it; the reputation of their ’70s output is secure, close to inviolate, but their second incarnation has many detractors. I can’t help feeling that many of these misgivings relate more to a general  disdain for the trappings of the ’80s, which were manifested in some of the more misguided production choices on The Ideal  Copy and in Lewis brandishing a headstock- free bass and the hairstyle that no one actually called a mullet until around 1994 (“footballer’s haircut” seemed to be the preferred term at the time).
True, by ths time of their second cessation around 1992, they were at risk of becoming the dry laboratory exercise they’re seen as by some who fail to detect the drama, mystery and magic at their core. But what makes A Bell Is A Cup… such a strong candidate for reappraisal is how fresh, undated and, in fact, contemporary it sounds. It’s also makes one of the strongest cases for Wire being a vast, yet almost completely unacknowledged, influence on Radiohead. I’ve never known Radiohead themselves, or even any critics, to trace their lineage back to Wire but, in the shared values of manipulating traditional rock forms to unconventional ends, applying advanced technology to those newly mutated forms and making shrewd political observations couched in oblique terms, as well as unlikely popularity in America, I find the comparison glaringly obvious and the influence incalculable.
It was only at the time of A Bell Is A Cup… that I properly discovered Wire. I’d been aware of them first time around, catching desultory hearings of Practice Makes Perfect and On Returning on John Peel, but the only song of theirs I was truly intimate with was I Am The Fly. But the repeated citations and the quality of A Bell Is A Cup… meant that this was one of those rare occasions, as with the Velvet Underground and REM a few years earlier, when my eagerness to delve into a back catalogue came with a sure and well-founded conviction that I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Now in their third incarnation, they’re still adding to it – even without Gilbert and with the remaining original members all over 60, they’re capable of being as abrasive and compelling as ever. Just keep some of that Anadin handy (PG).

51. SPACEMEN 3 – RECURRING (1991)

Indie / Alternative, Shoegaze

Spacemen_3Divided Souls: Spacemen 3 and The Redemptive Power Of Music

Robert Christgau’s review consisted of three words: “Stooges for airports.” But then again, he awarded one of his coveted A+ ratings to Brian Eno’s Another Green World, which might lead one to presume that Christgau is, in fact, rather fond of music for airports. Of course, I’ve missed the point if all his analogy does, is lead me to contemplate the wonderfully absurd possibility of Raw Power echoing around air terminal departure lounges. But then I’d say Christgau was well off the mark with his dismissive assessment of Spacemen 3’s damaged swan-song Recurring,which I would contend is one of the greatest (and unjustly overlooked) albums of the 1990s.

It took me a long time to feel convinced by Spacemen 3. Dragged along by a few friends, I witnessed a fairly unspectacular set at Fury Murrys in Glasgow in 1989. I was genuinely underwhelmed, but then my expectations had not been high – I didn’t care greatly for the po-faced posturing of their early albums, which often sounded more than a little contrived. I sensed a shallow affectation beneath that ’66 Velvets’ veneer: that, as if by simply wearing the clothes, they would become the man. All the same, this was clearly a band whose heart was in the right place. Their musical touchstones, The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, Suicide, latterly laced with a dose of gospel and krautrock, demonstrated a fairly discerning palate.

By the time Recurring, sporting a hideous ‘Зmarties’ technicolour sleeve, hit the record stores in February 1991, Pete Kember and Jason Pierce hadn’t spoken face to face in six months. Some misinterpret Recurring as a hastily compiled contractual obligation album. In actual fact, it was supposed to be the first of a lucrative five album deal with Dedicated records. But in reality, even a new record contract could not disguise the fact that Spacemen 3 as an entity, was already dead. Bruised and battling egos alongside increasing drug addiction, had conspired to create an insurmountable rift between Pierce and Kember, just as they had finally realised some degree of commercial success. Their penultimate album had finally given them a breakthrough of sorts. Critics and (the indie) public alike adored it. Playing With Fire,  embodied a soulful (spiritual if you prefer), as well as a stylistic shift in their sound: a sonic leap at least partially attributable to a key change of personnel – the recruitment of Will Carruthers and Jon Mattock (who would go on to join Pierce in Spiritualized once the disintegration was complete). They replaced Stuart Roswell and Pete Bain who had left to form The Darkside. The results were instant. And while I wouldn’t get into a boxing ring with someone who would claim for it the title of their finest moment, neither could I in all sincerity agree with them. Playing With Fire contains some extraordinarily beautiful songs, alongside the last vestiges of those big power-chord Stooges riffs which characterised some of their earlier work (hear ‘Suicide’ and ‘Revolution’), and a protracted exploration of Kember’s latest guitar pet – the Vox Starstream, on the ten minute ‘How Does it Feel.’

While the Vox Starstream’s repeater function added a vital new psychedelic dimension to their sound, ‘How Does It Feel’ sounded laboured and unjustifiably lengthy – like they were mucking about with a new toy. By contrast, consider the opening track on Recurring, which, while even lengthier in duration, gives the instrument a genuinely worthy exposition. Big City (Everybody I Know Can Be Found Here)’ is Kember’s twin tribute to Kraftwerk and 1960s garage punks The Electric Prunes: a musical homage to the former, the lyrics brazenly stolen from the latter. But it’s metronomic pulse glides lighter than air and the trademark two chord Farfisa organ which creeps into its flesh, is so hypnotic that those eleven minutes feel like four. It could be Kember’s finest moment. Indeed, his half of the album – he and Pierce, by now completely beyond personal reconciliation, recorded their songs separately and were each afforded one side of the album – could be his finest hour. Spacefans often invest considerable energy debating the relative merits of Kember and Pierce’s individual contributions, but I do not aim to ignite the debate here. Indeed, I veer back and forth with my own preference. Depends on one’s mood I’d say.

Kember’s ‘I Love You’ nicks a neanderthal Troggs riff, Can’s fizzing pulse from ‘Father Cannot Yell’ and a shuffling Diddley-esque rhythm, while ‘Just To See You Smile’ (subtitled ‘Honey Pt.2’) prolongs the glistening soulful balladry of PWF, this time borrowing heavily as the band often did, from the ghostly waltz-time inflections of Lou Reed’s ‘Street Hassle’. (Pierce does likewise on the blissfully gorgeous Sometimes)

There is little poetic or profound in a Spacemen 3 lyric: rather one is left to wonder if – in these seemingly simple love songs – the object of affection is a girl or a favoured pharmaceutical. Or even the music itself. Take Pierce’s majestic Hypnotised for example: “Her sweet touch it dances through my blood/Sets my heart on fire/It’s lit up all around my soul/Takes me higher and higher/It’s got everything and so much more/Never known a love like it before/Jesus, sweeter than the life you lived/Lord, hypnotize my soul.” The title of their posthumous compilation of early demos, made explicit the band’s raison d’être: Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To,  and one is never clear if there was a concerted effort to evangelise about the use of chemicals, or whether when writing, the band were simply chronicling their collective narcotic meltdown. In any case those Ray-Bans failed to conceal their own very real problems, which by the time of Recurring were spiralling out of control.

Pierce’s ‘Feel So Sad’ (later spiritualized with an additional ten minutes) acts as a prelude to the shimmering organ-ic rush of the aforementioned Hypnotised, where the rattling percussion (like a bluebottle stuck in a matchbox) gives way to a layered gospel-inspired wave of a chorus, embellished with Memphis-style sax. After Pierce’s half is over it is a challenge to rejoin the real world; one’s head has been ransacked by the densest suite of ambient space blues ever committed to vinyl – a listless drift which segues nebulously to the albums conclusion. In many ways it is authentically, the first Spiritualized record.

Recurring is a document of disunity that polarises opinion. It was fuelled by drugs, a bitter enmity between its chief protagonists and yes, even more drugs. It sounds tarnished and sullied and yet somehow pure as snow; a slow motion surrender, a wasted eulogy, a sprawling soporific haze. And if it is a sybaritic and decadent confessional, yet it floats like a cloud of mercy and redemption, stretching out through the darkness to find broken souls to mend and heal. In the end, finally, it is Spacemen 3’s perfect prescription. (JJ)

49. CAT POWER – YOU ARE FREE (2003)

Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative, Rock Music

CatPower-07On an airless afternoon during the height of a clammy Glasgow summer, I first heard her voice. A sluggish drawl, as though vainly battling sleep. In 1999, everyone in Missing Records was listening to Cat Power’s ‘Moon Pix’. I left Missing that summer and forgot all about Chan Marshall and that voice, returning faithfully to my tired LP collection with its familiar sleeves, smells and sounds – like putting on a pair of tattered, but very comfortable old slippers. Only gradually did I rediscover my zest for newer sounds. Four years later, a recommendation from an old colleague during a brief rendezvous in Glasgow’s finest music emporium, Monorail, led me to a (re)discovery. And to one of the very best albums of the new millennium thus far.

In 2003, Chan Marshall was in trouble. One can sense a sombre desolation and sadness on her 5th LP ‘You Are Free’. In her interviews at the time, Chan spoke of her exhaustion with touring and travelling, the conspicuous lack of routine/stability in her life, the meddlesome politics of record companies and the irksome complexities of the nature of studio recording. In the haphazardness of her day to day existence, she perceived the need for a kind of liberation of the soul. They were not the best of times. Live performances were edgy, dysfunctional, often chaotic. She was drinking more, perhaps abusing other drugs. Her latest relationship was nearing its end. A mournful atmosphere pervades the recording, a sense of physical and spiritual dislocation. Some say an artist in emotional turmoil is primed to produce their most soulful art, and in this case, that maxim sings true.

The fourteen songs on ‘You Are Free’ were culled from around forty or so, which Chan had written during a frenetic year of travelling and touring, and were selected carefully for the album with the assistance of engineer Adam Kasper. The songs, at once deceptively simple, uncoil to reveal great depth. Anything superfluous is eschewed. There is no grand gesture, no unnecessary embellishment, no affectation. There is barely a chorus to be heard, and the tempo rarely changes, yet the subtle minimalism of the arrangements provides real depth to the songs.

The opener, ‘I Don’t Blame You’, conversely the last song written for the album, is one of four brilliant piano-led tracks, and contains a reservoir of empathy for the song’s subject. Marshall only very reluctantly revealed the protagonist to be Kurt Cobain, but in truth, that was merely confirming what everyone had long suspected. [‘Last time I saw you/You were on stage/Your hair was wild/Your eyes were bright/And you were in a rage/You were swinging your guitar around/Cuz they wanted to hear that sound/But you didn’t want to play/And I don’t blame you’] Here, the song’s strength lies in its avoidance of any stylistic homage. Rather, Chan’s voice, all raggedy velvet, sounds wise with lifetimes, and over a stark block piano riff she conveys the familiar story with great subtlety in a fitting tribute which reveals a deeper sentiment at the heart of one of the album’s key themes.

The lyrics to ‘Free’ and the album’s title itself could be construed as a rallying call to the listener: [‘Don’t be in love with the autograph/Just be in love when you scream that song’]. The message could be ‘break those fetters’; ‘be who you want to be’, but one suspects it is there to serve as a reminder to the author that she alone holds the power to regain control of her own life?

Amongst the other piano led tracks is ‘Names’, a despairingly tragic account of the abused lives of five of Chan’s childhood acquaintances, and the mysterious closer ‘Evolution’, featuring guest vocal by Eddie Vedder, where a hauntingly cryptic reverie drifts out gorgeously to the album’s close.

At times, there is an Antipodean countryish feel to the album, mirroring the muddied rootsiness of The Triffids circa’ In the Pines’ / ‘Born Sandy Devotional’ or the crawling black death of ‘From Her To Eternity’ era Nick Cave. This is hardly surprising; the aforementioned ‘Moon Pix’ had been recorded in Melbourne with The Dirty Three, and on this outing, Warren Ellis (Bad Seeds) is among the guest musicians. Ellis has a starring role on one of the album’s real highlights ‘Good Woman’, where he manages to conjure an authentically Appalachian violin sound, making this, despite its traditional C&W lyrical content (they could have been written for Tammy Wynette) less Nashville and more Kentucky fried. The childlike backing vocals (credited to ‘Maggie & Emma’) add an eerie quality and the whole arrangement works sublimely.

Elsewhere, over a basic acoustic strum David Campbell’s exquisite string arrangement on ‘Werewolf’ including superb cello accompaniment, lends it a gravitas befitting something from Nico’s’ Chelsea Girl’ or ‘The Clarke Sisters’ by The Go Betweens, and acts as a musical bridge between the sparser solo songs and the more conventional band outings. Starker still is the desperately bleak ‘Baby Doll’, which may be an intimate portrayal of a self-destructive friend, or a confessional autobiographical snapshot?  [‘Baby/Black, black, black is all you see/Don’t you want to be free?/Baby/Red, red fire is what you breathe/Don’t you want to be clean/Honey, the shape you’re in /Is worth every dime you spent/Baby Doll/Turn out the lights/Set yourself on fire/Say good night’] Whatever the case, those little noises scraping along in the background certainly add to the discomfort. And on ‘Keep On Running’, Marshall’s take on ‘John Lee Hooker’s Crawling Black Spider’ there is even less room to breathe freely.

‘Shaking Paper’s little rippling rivulets of feedback groan along queasily, while ‘Speak For Me’ and the single, ‘He War’, are the most conventional rock tracks (drums courtesy Dave Grohl) – both appear to concern Chan’s unravelling relationship. On ‘He War’ she laments [‘I never meant to be the needle that broke your back/You were here, you were here, and you were here/Don’t Look Back’] with an impassioned vocal performance which is palpably soulful and technically dexterous, alongside an infectiously catchy ‘Hey hey hey’ chorus. Marshall was reportedly unhappy with the version recorded for the album, claiming it lacked the raw-ness of the original ‘live band’ recordings.

What it does not lack is soul, and that can be said for everything else on ‘You Are Free’. If I feel uncomfortable labelling American country music ‘white soul music’ (the worst country is often something else altogether) I do so merely to illustrate a point – which is that soul / soulfulness is not confined to any particular musical genre. Chan was already a soul artist long before ‘The Greatest’, most amply illustrated here on ‘You Are Free’. On ‘The Greatest’, she embarked on a soul project that was at times more style than substance. While it is a good album, there was really no need, for Chan’s soul credentials were already well established. ‘You Are Free’ was truly a soul album, it’s rawness and honesty straight from the heart, and conclusive proof that at times, less can certainly mean a whole lot more. (JJ)

46. BARAFUNDLE – GORKY’S ZYGOTIC MYNCI (1997)

Indie / Alternative

BARAFUNDLE – GORKY’S ZYGOTIC MYNCI (1997)
There was a vast upsurge in Welsh identity in the music of the ’90s. A nation with a completely distinct language, culture and identity had been subsumed for centuries into its larger neighbour, enveloped by legislative and statistical purposes, and, while plenty could be said about the Labour government that took over in 1997, one of its lasting legacies was to restore some of that identity to Wales and Scotland, delivered by referendum within months of it gaining power.
The inevitability of this succession, and the accompanying national mood,  appeared to be mirrored by what I guess we must call Britpop, which cast up music of highly varying degrees of quality, originality and durability. A subset of it was arguably the most active and diverse music scene Wales has ever had, with an array of bands for whom being Welsh was never incidental and often central (full disclosure: I’ve spent exactly one day in Wales -one day more than I’ve spent in America. Does this make me more qualified to comment on Wales than on America? ).
It began with Manic Street Preachers who, once they had got their tiresome posturing out of their systems and admitted that they were actually into much of the music they initially professed to despise, proved to be as earnest as they were eloquent and fervent Welsh patriots. Catatonia, despite an opportunistic appropriation of buzzwords that brought them some bludgeoningly ubiquitous hits, encapsulated the mood with the title song of their 1998 album International Velvet, a Cymric call to arms in the verses helpfully condensed into the English chorus “Every day, when I wake up, I thank the Lord I’m Welsh,” sung by Cerys Matthews in an accident broader than the Menai Bridge. Even Stereophonics,  before lumpen rock impulses and life-on-the-road commonplaces overwhelmed them, offered sharply-drawn vignettes that were universal but unmistakably informed by the Wales they had witnessed.
The Welsh language was particularly crucial to two bands -Super Furry Animals, for whom an album entirely in Welsh  (2000’s Mwng) was, after a string of hits, a logical step for a band not renowned for those things and liberated from the expectations of the recently-folded Creation – and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci.
Of all these bands, Gorky’s have always been the only one I’ve truly cherished. There’s always been something downright  lovable about them; partly a warmth that was sometimes wilfully mistaken for tweeness (“whimsical arse” was one petulant verdict), partly their deployment of well-worn influences (Beach Boys, Syd Barrett, Robert Wyatt) in an inventive and dextrous manner (their irreverent cover of Wyatt’s O Caroline notwithstanding), and perhaps most importantly, a willingness to come off at unforseen tangents and try to confound the listener – often succeeding effortlessly.
This makes them heirs to probably the greatest Welsh band of them all, Young Marble Giants (whose story will be told here before long) and tells of an ability to tap into the spirit of Welsh tradition found at the annual Eisteddfod music and literature festival – fittingly, as drummer Euros Rowlands’ late father, Dafydd, was a writer who was elevated to the post of the festival’s archdruid. Welsh folk has all the mystery and strangeness of its counterparts in other UK nations at their best but seems to lack the over-jollity and sentimentality they have at their worst. This gave Gorky’s a distinctive edge and enabled them to dodge the grave prog allegations served on anyone who strays too close to a harmonium or an un-jazz brass instrument.
For instance: St David himself could have joined the cloister chants that open Pen Gwag Glas (Empty Blue Head) but it wrongfoots with four or five tempo changes, from mellow saunter to Fall-do-glam stomp and back again. There’s a similar vocal tension in the rapid ascent and plummet of the harmonies on Better Rooms, while the gentler cadences of Sometimes The Father Is The Son are an unlikely echo of the Hollies’ Bus Stop, but to far more sombre ends. Then the very late 20th-century pop glide of Starmoonsun is abruptly interrupted by a trio of shawms,  a reed instrument that immediately evokes Plantaganet courts, doublets and hoses. They hint at the Renaissance grandeur of Dead Can Dance but an endearing – though never flippant – playfulness is seldom far from the surface.
And back to those instruments: that harmonium dominates opener, and second single, Diamond Dew, where more tempo shifts – Gorky’s truly revelled in them – are chivvied by a Jew’s harp and hasten along an ambiguous tale of warm domesticity alongside something seemingly more sinister – does “the uncovering of the bodies as the giant sun soars up” merely mean people peeling off to enjoy some rays? Or has a grim discovery been made beneath the soil?
There’s more double meaning on Heywood Lane, the most straightforwardly comely song on the album. The purposeful stride of acoustic guitar and piano is offset by some giddy violin by Megan Childs, while her brother Euros relates a visit to relatives (the eponymous lane is in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, not too far from Gorky’s hometown of Carmarthen, and appears to be full of hotels and guest houses). In the first and second chorus, we’re told “the faces are all the same” – reassurance at familiarity or the same familiarity breeding what it usually breeds? Third and final chorus – “the faces they’re not the same:” genuine sorrow at losing what you’ve held dear or a realisation that you didn’t appreciate what you had until it’s gone? The question remains unresolved as a stomp brings matters to a close.

Yet more time travel comes on Miniature Kingdoms, which starts with a horn blast belonging firmly in the type of Roman epic that was churned out at the rate of roughly one a month in the ’50s, which usually starred Victor Mature or Steve Reeves and which invariably had Atilla pronounced to rhyme with “battler.” It recurs to punctuate a song which elsewhere floats on a delicate bed of tre,olo guitar, horns in the more familiar guise of a Philly-style breeze and, out of nowhere, Euros vamping like Bryan Ferry circa 1972 as a chant urges him “go back today!” to end his exile. Enough ideas for five songs in the space of four minutes – meanwhile, the music press were in a flap over Heavy Stereo and the Llama Farmers. They were also overlooking Dark Night, which imperceptibly shifts from sweet to unsettling and, magnificently, has four members credited with playing ‘gas tank.’
Gorky’s would rarely sound as overtly Welsh again. There were two Welsh language song’-s on their next album, Gorky 5, but none on 1999’s Spanish Dance Troupe. Meanwhile  the medieval element of their sound was gradually eroded and an unexpected country flavour took its place (cue gags about swapping the middle ages for middle age). These records were, if anything, even lovelier than Barafundle but it was there that they were at their most mischievous, uninhibited and brazenly inventive. Hear it and you’ll be telling it “Dw i’n dy garu di” – go on, look it up (PG).

39. ULTRA VIVID SCENE – ULTRA VIVID SCENE (1988)

Indie / Alternative, Shoegaze

Trying to find great, life changing music on television in the Eighties was always a bit of a struggle. As the steady supply of punk and post punk acts that sold enough to get on Top Of The Pops seemed to (with a few notable exceptions) dry up, you needed to look elsewhere. There was Whistle Test, but more often than not that sterile studio atmosphere (almost as bad as the forced enthusiasm of the Newcastle fashionistas on the Tube) failed to spur many of the bands towards anything like excitement. The Jesus and Mary Chain crackled with electricity under red and green lights playing In A Hole, despite being recorded at ten in the morning given their notoriety at the time. Contrast this with  their rather tame performance of Just Like Honey and Inside Me on The Tube ten months later. (Pete Townshend liked it though, reminded him of Buddy Holly). There was always that clip of the Smiths recording Meat Is Murder, Morrisey and Marr miming along to Nowhere Fast, Marr looking like Johnny Thunders trying to sneak his way onto the back cover of Revolver. Or what about that amazing footage of The Cramps playing The Most Exalted Potentate Of Love live at the Peppermint Lounge and shown on The Tube. These moments were taped and watched endlessly.

It probably didn’t help that TV executives seemed to be more interested in looking backwards – Sounds Of The Sixties, re-runs of Ready Steady Go. There was even The Golden Oldie Picture Show where they would create videos for old hits and shown at prime time. Where were the opportunities for the new bands to get this kind of exposure? It’s not as if the music was not being made. Sometimes you’d get great bands popping up in the most unexpected places. I remember Iggy Pop disembowling a teddy bear on No. 73, Pere Ubu appearing on Roland Rat, Strawberry Switchblade on Cheggers Plays Pop. These may not have been these bands finest hours musically, but even catching a glimpse of them was enough in pre-internet, pre-Youtube barren times. Sometimes you want something so bad you’ll grab anything.

So, towards the end of the eighties Snub TV came along and we could finally see interviews, videos and live clips of the likes of (off the top of my head) My Bloody Valentine, The Butthole Surfers, Wire, Pale Saints, Pixies, Loop, Teenage Fanclub, Ride (before releasing a record I think), Spacemen 3 etc. etc. For me, this is where Ultra Vivid Scene arrived. Cue slowed down grainy over-saturated footage of a cool looking band in a studio. Built around a prowling two note fuzz bass line, the song is called The Mercy Seat. Phhht! Don’t they know there’s already a song called that? It borrowed the template the Mary chain used for Sidewalking earlier that year. Still it drew me in, high sparkling fuzzy Fender guitars, great melody. I was a goner.

After further investigation it turned out that the band was in fact one man, a New Yorker called Kurt Ralske. Recorded in New York, UVS debut does not stray too far from those home turf giants of art rock Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine. Sung in a detached whisper, Lynn Marie #2 sounds like the song Lou Reed would write if you gave him the chords to Bonzo Goes To Bitburg, while Crash fades in just like Train Round The Bend. Blood Line is as pretty a melody as Verlaine’s Days, while the intro to How Did It Feel would not be out of place on Dreamtime or Words From The Front. He may be a guitar virtuoso but there’s no room here for long, meandering solos. There’s hardly any solos at all in fact. Everything here is designed to support the songs, from the chilly keyboards of Nausea to the One Of These Days-like slide guitars of Crash.

The album itself is full of tales of parties and beautiful cruel muses, icy Warholian goddesses (Lynn Marie, like Lou’s Caroline gets two songs named after her), uptight and strung out in equal measure.

It’s not all genuflecting at the feet of New Yorks finest though. The use of a drum machine colours the songs differently and stops them sounding like they are merely aping the Velvets or Television, and drives them closer to some imaginary crossroads where Chromes Slip It To The Android/Kinky Lover schtick meets Soft Cells kinky pop. The album opener She Screamed – could have been a hit single in more sympathetic era – is more like Metal Urbain piling into the disco on a night out. Like a lot of his contemporaries (Nick Cave, Jesus and Mary Chain, Spacemen 3) Kurt likes his Religious imagery (Whore of God, Hail Mary), and he’s not scared to cop a title from Ballard or Sartre. But most of all there is a romance and tenderness that more than balances any sleaze. This isn’t Real slows down Buzzcocks Walking Distance and adds a lyric about a B-movie sob story mystery. He saves his most heartbreaking lines for A Dream of Love

A dream of love is haunting me

a dream of love is taunting me

Misguidedly labeled shoegazing, this album deserves to be rated alongside the cream of the eras visionary dream pop like My Bloody Valentine, early AR Kane, late Spacemen 3, Mazzy Star et al. An album this good should not be languishing out of print as it currently is. (TT)

37. AGAINST NATURE – FATIMA MANSIONS (1989)

Indie / Alternative

AGAINST NATURE (1989) – FATIMA MANSIONS
Despite rotating at 45 rpm, Against Nature is, for me, the last great album of the ’80s. It appeared right at the end of a decade which left much of the UK drained, dispirited and soul-sick and which had been documented in withering detail by Cathal Coughlan, first in Microdisney and then in Fatima Mansions.
The life and foreshortened times of Microdisney will be another story for another time but, in crude precis, it revolved around the tension between the meticulous, mellifluous music of Sean O’Hagan and Coughlan’s pitiless studies – sometimes direct and unvarnished, as often luridly allegorical – of human cruelty, stupidity and ridiculousness. After their 1985 masterpiece, The Clock Comes Down The Stairs, they were poached from Rough Trade by Virgin, who appeared to believe they had secured themselves their own Deacon Blue, when, in fact, they had on their hands a band which could glide and swoop as deftly as Steely Dan but which was fronted by a scabrous amalgam of Elvis Costello, Randy Newman and Mark E Smith.
While Microdisney’s fourth album, 39 Minutes (its perfunctory, factual title a grudging and sour compromise; the band wanted a far more colourful title) was a fine record, still lyrically excoriating and melodically acute, it was over-embellished in places (unnecessary horns, Londonbeat on backing vocals) and stubbornly refused to yield a hit. Virgin, well on the way to becoming a byword for musical reductiveness and loads of cash, no longer wanted to know.
Coughlan was often compared with James Joyce – well, they were both Irish – but a closer comparison, who also happened to be Irish, is Jonathan Swift. Swift’s Latin epitaph declares that he is now “where savage indignation can lacerate his heart no longer,” a rage articulated in his lifetime through the immeasurably bitter irony of A Modest Proposal (cannibalism as the ideal solution to hunger in Ireland, with children reared specifically for this purpose) and the final part of Gulliver’s Travels, which (Walt) Disney left decidedly alone (Gulliver finds a land run by wise, benevolent horses and populated by the brutish, barely-evolved Yahoos, who, he is forced to concede, are as human as he is. After he’s compelled to return to England, a year passes before he can allow his family anywhere near him and five years before he lets his wife eat with him – even then, only at the end of a long table, while he has his nose stuffed with lavender and tobacco leaves to deflect her Yahoo scent.)
Swift summed his attitude up thus: “I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth.” Some 250 years later, charges of similar misanthropy would be levelled at Cathal Coughlan; certainly, his incandescent stage persona was of a piece with his lyrical ire and at times you could wonder if the phrase “doesn’t suffer fools gladly” had been coined in a Microdisney live review. Yet interviewers continually reported finding an affable, approachable character, at odds with the creator of lines like: “I know they’re fools, they’re my only hope/When would you like to kick in my head?”
When he started again with Fatima Mansions, named after a notorious Dublin housing scheme, he was liberated from the Microdisney house style and able to wander where he would –  Sean O’Hagan would be similarly galvanised in the formidable High Llamas. Against Nature was a decisive statement of intent and unleashed an enviable musical palette which was the ideal canvas for Coughlan’s parade of grotesques, encompassing rockabilly, disco and chamber pop – but genres be hanged, its twitching brouhaha is magnificently impossible to pin down. With Aindrias “Grimmo” O’Gruama as his new foil on taser guitar, more emphasis could be laid on Coughlan’s humour, which often went unnoticed or was at least underplayed. This happened as much to him as to Morrissey and the one-time accidental labelmates had far more in common than either might have been prepared to admit.
It’s there in opener Only Losers Take The Bus, which fades in to the sound of a good ol’fashioned landline ringing, and to a full-throttle electrobilly rhythm, has its pompous tyrant of a narrator proudly displaying his knowledge: “Can you draw the Chinese flag? It’s, er, three blue lines and six dahlias/Paris is in India,” depressingly foreshadowing scores of reality TV types.
The Day I Lost Everything kicks off with a – more of a monologue than a rap, embracing Jimmy Tarbuck, Santa Claus and a fall downstairs before embarking on a story of justified paranoia (“Don’t even think about not answering your phone/It might be me – and I know you’re always home” set to verses made of tungsten and choruses made of ambrosia. The pace slows on the wintry Wilderness On Time, where the synth-harpsichord heard on Only Losers… is the sole accompaniment to a romantic encounter that probably isn’t (“When I look round your eyes/There’s a space at the sides/Where ten more eyes could hide.”) I’ve no idea if it’s a personal song but I once, at King Tut’s in Glasow, heard Coughlan berating a hapless individual who had been singing along to it and was exposed when Coughlan took a longer-than-on-the-recorded-version pause before the line “my genuine Celticness shines.” It’s unlikely he’d ever invite a crowd to hold their phones aloft, which is exactly how it should be.
You Won’t Get Me Home is a partial return to Microdisney terrain, with a querulous live feel and palpable rage at Aids persecution “You’re not your own executioner -NO!). The album’s most controversial song, 13th Century Boy, has to be heard in the context of its time – Stock, Aitken and Waterman productions were omnipresent and repeatedly, sometimes lazily, held up as the embodiment of all that was evil. This song lampoons their MO with fiendish accuracy – Rick Astley or Jason Donovan could easily have had their vocals imposed on the backing track, though maybe not singing lyrics caricaturing self-denying ordnances (“You are the reason why I try to tend this fertile void”). As such, it now shows its age somewhat but appeared in different garb live as a full-band detonation, although there doesn’t appear to be a surviving recording of this online. It was a double-A sided single with the tempestuous Blues For Ceausescu (written quickly following the Christmas Day execution of the Romanian despot and an early exercise in expectation management as the Soviet Bloc disintegrated). It could have been massive; if it had been, it would almost certainly have been the end of Fatima Mansions, an unrepresentative albatross they might never have been able to lay to rest (see also: Lazy Sunday).
Bishop of Babel is also of its time, veering dangerously towards what was never called in the ’80s a power ballad, but it survives by virtue of a faultless organ solo and one of Coughlan’s gentler satires of religion (“We don’t talk the same, so we don’t talk at all/And our hosts just look on with glee). More punkabilly on Valley of the Dead Cars, which appears to start with an encounter with a homeless woman and just keeps getting bleaker. Coughlan has frequently drawn on Ireland’s restless history and here he refers to Skibbereen, the town in his native Cork which became synonymous with the agony of the country’s 19th-century famine and as a honky-tonk piano rollicks and  Grimmo’s feedback caterwauls, , he concludes with possibly the saddest lines he’s ever written: “At the mouth of a flooded mine/I will embrace you hard/And we’ll wait for the sun to shine.”

Musically, closer Big Madness is pure balm, a log fire against the lyric’s blizzard of a killer bragging of his exploits (“Yells and laughs: they all wanted it/It was easy, so how could it be wrong?”). In its washes of synth and Coughlan’s rich, expressive voice – he could be the most underrated vocalist of the past 30 years- it echoes two of his most prominent influences, the Beach Boys and Scott Walker. In fact, his trajectory is in many ways similar to that of  Walker, whose odyssey took him from his sumptuous but twisted orchestral opuses of the ’60s to his increasingly layered and impenetrable works of the last three decades, finally going as far as anyone’s ever been on 2012’s Bish Bosch. For its final minute, it segues into the Pet Sounds-against-the-poll-tax instrumental Monday Club Carol, named after a think tank renowned for a lack of enthusiasm on  matters of multiculturalism (Fatima Mansions  were originally named the Freedom Association, after another group in  a similar region of the political spectrum).
Fatima Mansions would become stormier and narrower; by 1992’s Valhalla Avenue , Seattle had eaten the world and there had been a convergence of sorts between them and the mainstream. This was a problem; they now sounded like many other people, whereas their earlier greatness hinged on the fact that they sounded like nobody else. They reasserted themselves on 1994’s briiliant Lost In The Former West; then, suddenly, it was done but Coughlan continues to challenge, confront and needle with his righteous anger and often-overlooked compassion intact.
We now live in a world that thinks it’s beyond satire, which it thinks can be blunted with shrugging insouciance, know-knothing knowingness and the wilful, all-pervasive, 2+2= 5-style equation of criticism with hatred. Because he can penetrate these shields, the work of Cathal Coughlan, past and present, is more important than ever (PG).

36. JOSEF K – SORRY FOR LAUGHING (1981*)

Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk

“He [Alan Horne] was never keen on our angular sound at all. He appreciated much more the softer West Coast aspects of Orange Juice. He used to say that we were The Velvet Underground of Postcard, and Orange Juice were like The Byrds. I think he felt that it was cool to have a gloomy band as well as a jolly one on the roster.” (Paul Haig)

As a young man, knee-deep in Kafka and Camus, the world weighed heavily on Paul Haig’s shoulders. At the same time as I would have been racing back and forth to The Odeon on Renfield St. to dream of clandestine liaisons with Clare Grogan in ‘Gregory’s Girl’, by contrast, Haig’s sense of alienation was finding its way onto a striking series of prickly yet savant 7” singles, released by Josef K to great critical acclaim between December 1979 and March 1982.

During that time Josef K made good their impetuous oath to release only one album and then disband, although improbably, they recorded two. Their first attempt at a debut, “Sorry For Laughing”, was shelved, the band dispirited by its ‘insipid’ production. In its place they released ‘The Only Fun In Town’, recorded in only two days in Belgium, a few months later, as a defiantly lo-fi response. It was a gamble which never paid off. The critics were divided and the fans, accustomed to the exhilarating vitality of the band’s live shows, featuring Haig’s provocatively charismatic performances, were largely underwhelmed. While ‘The Only Fun In Town’ has now assumed the status of lost post-punk classic, to my mind it pales in comparison to its abandoned predecessor. One wonders why of the two albums, this was the one to be condemned, like Kafka’s protagonist, without a fair trial. Nevertheless, whichever one holds to be the authentic or apocryphal Josef K moment, this decision helped to cultivate the mystique, the enigma, the legend, that set in motion one of the most feverish pursuits for the curious record collecting teenager of the 1980s.

In fact, Josef K arrived in my house on Christmas Day 1987, in the form of the ‘Young & Stupid / Endless Soul’ compilation album released earlier that year. 1987. I was always about five years behind. Its instantaneous impact sent me on an only partially successful hunt for the band’s fabled Postcard singles and their long unavailable solitary album. As things eventually transpired, my younger brother would beat me to the post with its capture, but while green with envy, our house echoed to the strains of the band’s music for some considerable time. It was a good time to catch on, before they fell foul of ever changing musical fashions. Guitarist Malcolm Ross recalls:

“There was a while especially when acid house music and hip hop first came along that nobody was interested in Josef K. There was a period of over ten years between 1988 and right up until the end of the late nineties when nobody gave a damn about us. I remember when I released my second solo album in 1998 the ‘NME’ was sent a copy and the editor said to the record company, ‘We are not going to review this. This has no relevance to us now.”

In truth, as far as being fashionable or relevant, the emerging post-punk Scottish music scene was slow to blossom and certainly lagged behind the rest of the UK in developing the spirit of ’76/77. At the very least, it took longer for the records to arrive. But, by allowing the more artless and noxious aspects of punk to fizzle out, that gave Josef K and Orange Juice, along with their peers, given the tag ‘The Sound of Young Scotland’, sufficient distance to confidently exhibit a more expansive range of influences in their music than most others could muster.

Often parallels are made between the distinctive Glasgow / Edinburgh music scenes with the corresponding US demarcation between East Coast and West Coast sensibilities, but these are overplayed. If the Glasgow bands (Orange Juice, The Pastels, Aztec Camera etc) professed an admiration for Love and The Byrds, they were quite often equally in awe of NY’s The Velvet Underground. Likewise if the Edinburgh bands (Josef K, Fire Engines, Scars) were more indebted to the sharper caustic traits of Television and The Voidoids, at the same time they bore the influence of Beefheart (LA). And, as is well documented, Josef K preferred Chic in any case. In truth there was more harmony than discord between the two scenes. However, when it came to Josef K’s music the reverse was true. Discord was a fundamental ingredient of the bands thrilling sound.

John Lydon had penned Death Disco, which I always felt was the perfect Josef K song title. Behind those near-nerdy (occasionally) baggy suits, were detuned twitchy guitars, equal parts punk scratch and funk catch, underpinning a batch of lyrics brimming with existential angst. Consider ‘Drone’ for instance, which features guitars so ferociously discordant it feels the fretboards will ignite or even fingers fall off, where the lyrics sound like they’ve been ripped from a random page of Knut Hamsun’s ‘Hunger’:

‘I’d like to starve, fade away
Don’t need the cash, just decay.’ (‘Drone’)

On ‘Variation Of Scene’ I’m imagining Haig lurking in the shadows a la ‘The Third Man’ (Auld Reekie surely could have been as atmospheric a location as Vienna for Carol Reed’s classic noir, a film with which I’m sure the band would have been familiar)

‘I hear our footsteps echo
This trip is so much fun
One more eternal city
The psychos always rerun’

Between them, on ‘Heads Watch’, Haig and Ross somehow contrive to create a frenzied guitar battle between Television and Gang of Four, while David Weddell, playing Hooky, does his best to drag the whole thing through the floor and into the bass-ment. You can dance to it, you can sing along to it, and at the same time affect a supercilious urbane sneer:

‘I stand and look outside,
At pseudo-punks and all the mindless,
I see what they think about here,
I watch the girls and watch the heads turn.’  (‘Heads Watch’)

The influences are worn openly but converge to create something unique and vital. At times the band borrow heavily from Martin Hannett’s production for ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (‘Citizens’, ‘Sense Of Guilt’), while the jocular bass on ‘Crazy To Exist’ could be from one of The Fall’s early singles, and the intonation on ‘No Glory’ is a straight lift from David Watts. I imagine Alan Horne’s ears may have pricked up, his inner voice screaming ‘a hit at last!’ as he tuned in eagerly to the beginning of ‘Art of Things’. It promises a shift towards Orange Juice’s more melodic shamble and anticipates the charming amateurishness of The Pastels, but it soon flexes it’s rhythmic muscles to reveal a jittery heart of beef.

Despite that darker edge, Josef K still managed to find room in their album titles for the words ‘Laughing’ and ‘Fun’, but they were young then after all. The band’s reputation has grown, aided by a number of factors, not least through the high profile of Scottish bands Belle & Sebastian and public devotees Franz Ferdinand, but also through the booming vinyl market. Josef K were a band made for vinyl, if ever there was one. This, the album they themselves rejected, finally saw a  vinyl release in 2012. It makes it into The New Perfect Collection not only for its bravery, wit and invention, nor simply because it is has the most sparkling guitar playing from any Scottish band ever, but  also because every connoisseur’s collection should contain the stuff of legend:

“The world needed a squeamish, jumpy quartet of po-faced, slapstick modish punk kids with concerns about their mental health who would leave behind a messy legacy, a near legend, a fragmented narrative, a bent brilliance, a throbbing rumour of false starts, different versions, other mixes, half songs, shadowy codas, rejected tracks, bits and pieces, lost meolodies, twisted torch, bitty thoughts, missed hits, different members, temporary aberrations, bad dreams, old classics, nervy remakes, buried treasure, Peel sessions, failed ambition, part time associations, sure things, collapsed potential, scattered lies, romantic vision, sentimental sickness, solo attempts and dynamic inadequacy.” (Paul Morley)

[The documentary, ‘Big Gold Dream: The Sound Of Young Scotland’ is scheduled for release on July 4th 2015] (JJ)

35. SWAGGER – BLUE AEROPLANES (1990)

Indie / Alternative, Rock Music

SWAGGER – BLUE AEROPLANES (1990)
Lyrics aren’t poetry – discuss. What sounds like it’s fit to stand alongside Milton and Pope when set to music can be as pre-adolescent doggerel writen down – try “Where did your long hair go?/Where is the girl I used to know?” for starters. Conversely, lyrics that think they’re poetry are almost inevitably doomed to pull up well short – rhyming alone does not automatically qualify anything as poetry and the last writer to get away with using the weather as an emotional metaphor (pathetic fallacy, to give it its proper name) was  Ernest Hemingway.
But any suggestion that lyrics shouldn’t be poetry, shouldn’t even try, leads nowhere except to a place where songs are about nothing but sound and fury and the beast with two backs, where nothing and no one should aspire to anything beyond dancing and getting tanked up.
All these things are absolutely fine as they go but the human experience offers vast source material and if this music had continued to draw on this inspiring, but ultimately limited and limiting, range, it would have quickly ended up trudging in ever decreasing circles, finally perishing quietly some time in 1965.
And this doesn’t mean haughty, heavily-worn erudition or proficient musicianship for its own sake, all of which led to the most flatulent excesses of prog and the type of rock that you always notice rhymes with ‘sock;’ it means having a bit of curiosity, not rejecting things out of hand simply because they aren’t in the orbit of your experience, being prepared to look beyond the limits others try to set for you and which can be all too tempting to set for yourself.
Right on cue, enter Blue Aeroplanes. A densely-populated, loose-limbed,  horn of plenty, they emerged from the ever-fertile Bristol scene with an armful of slim volumes, a quiver full of riffs and more ideas in one song than many could muster in an entire career.
What made them if not quite unique then certainly distinctive were the words and delivery of frontman Gerard Langley. A genuine poet but one utterly enamoured with taking his place in a rock ‘n’ roll band, he frequently demurred at the idea of Blue Aeroplanes as an “intellectual bar band” and, as one which used not only his poems but those of Louis MacNeice, WH Auden, Kenneth Patchen and Sylvia Plath, he caricatured a common perception of them as having their album covers festooned with stickers declaring “includes A-Level syllabus poem.” In fact, he told with pride a story of them being ejected from LA’s Rainbow Room, whose clientele include practically every debauched rock type you could name over three decades. Yet he saw no paradox in having literary aspirations and sybaritic appetites, pointing out that some of the strangest art in history, notably by Shakespeare and Dylan, was also some of the most successful.
I first properly checked in (they were always an endlessly fertile source of punnery) to Blue Aeroplanes in the autumn of 1988. I had heard a small crop of their songs, notably Tolerance, here and there and had been impressed but then came across particularly vivid live reviews and interviews in editions of the late Melody Maker which I had been sent during my year in France, as part of my French degree. To paraphrase Kid Rock’s immortal couplet, we didn’t have no internet but, man, I never will forget how intrigued I became about Blue Aeroplanes. Effervescent guitars, florid lyrics, a scratching DJ, a relentlessly celebratory onstage dancer, live shows which were – as I would discover for myself – as thrilling as a Jason Bourne adventure.
While many of their contemporaries had a stylistic range as broad as Chile from east to west, the ‘Planes ran a gamut the length of Chile from north to south, encapsulated in their double album Friendloverplane which, while made up of b-sides, covers and alternate versions amid new material, made up a redoubtable cohesive whole that was a match for Hatful of Hollow. A year later, I failed to secure a copy which I’d been assured was on sale for £4.50 and it narrowly missed out on being my last purchase of the ’80s. A decade-long search for a modestly priced vinyl copy (the CD had three songs missing) followed and it eventually became my last purchase of the ’90s.
During a week back home in the middle of that year abroad, I bought Tolerance   – the album – and, having received my sterling in large denominations before my return, produced, to the dismay of the guy behind the counter, a £50 note. But he was able to rustle up the change and I was rewarded with a record that was audacious, diverse, intrepid, if a little oddly produced – a matter Gerard was aware of. In the MM interview, he declared that, if his band had a budget to match that of justly forgotten soft metallers Glass Tiger, they could outsell them by five to one.
That budget arrived with a deal with Ensign and Swagger, presided over by Gil Norton (Pixies/Triffids/Bunnymen), presented Blue Aeroplanes in the variegated landscape they required deserved. Blue Aeroplanes are renowned for having a revolving roster to rival the Fall – albeit one where people at least appear to leave on more amicable terms – and Swagger presented a mostly, if not entirely, new string-wielding line-up. Angelo Bruschini, more recently associated with another set of Bristol titans, Massive Attack, had contributed the cameo of one of Tolerance’s outstanding moments, the unsettling Ups, and as a full-time member, proved himself to be a specialist in complex, serpentine epics.
Chief among these were the intertwined Weightless and …And Stones, the former a part stoical, part fulminating reflection on space exploration, alcohol and disease reminiscent of the Smiths’ stately ballads Reel Around The Fountain and I Know It’s Over, the latter a cruise-control lunge across the Clifton Suspension Bridge propelled by the dulcimer of Oysterband’s Ian Kearey, never an official Aeroplane but always their secret weapon.

Bruschini also slots the jewel into the Swagger crown – the closing Cat-Scan Hist’ry, a many tentacled monster which echoes some of Zeppelin’s most epic moments but which, instead of Plant being Plant, has a deceptively calm recitation by Gerard, pushed side by menacing chants and the pulverising tom-toms of his brother John, before it’s all submerged in chaos (in the true, creation of the universe sense) similar to the second half of the title song of the Bunnymen’s Porcupine. I always picture Gerard as an anthropologist recording his observations on to a dictaphone at a safe distance from preparations for a grim tribal ritual, before a hurrricane scatters them all at the last moment. It’s gargantuan and never fails to stagger.
The contributions of Rodney Allen, barely out of his teens when he joined the band, are less incendiary but this doesn’t mean they’re slighter. Your Ages is probably the most beautiful song the band have ever recorded and its circular, accelerating riff impeccably underpins Gerard’s reflections on a drive to the country and possible visions of the future. Allen also weighs in with Careful Boy, one of the moments on most Aeroplanes albums when Gerard steps aside and allows a song to be sung. This particular one was derided by some at the time as a moment to go and put on the kettle, like a Barbara Dickson song during The Two Ronnnies – or, come to that, a Ronnie Corbett monologue – but I’ve always found it tender and affecting, with a modest poetry of its own, though it  makes more sense on the session version for Radio 1’s Nicky Campbell show – available on the deluxe reissue – than on the album proper’s mandolin-driven version.
A rich legacy is also left by former member Richard Bell, who left before Swagger. His setting of Plath’s poem The Applicant, in which a spouse becomes “it” and marriage a job or business transaction, is suitably fitful and carbonated, while What It Is is outwardly tranquil but with a trainload of wheels turning. A guest appearance by Michael Stipe on the latter – Blue Aeroplanes supported REM on the UK leg of the 1989 Green Tour at his invitation – became a selling point for the whole album but, in truth, he’s low-key and Swagger is easily strong enough to stand on its own, a sign that Blue Aeroplanes were rapidly becoming REM’s peers.
But within a couple of years, while REM had gone from big to universe-sized, Blue Aeroplanes had been largely forgotten – in the prevaling climate, dominated by the appallingly dubbed  and often appalling-sounding genres of grunge and crusty, labelling bigots as “assholes” was deemed astute social comment and Blue Aeroplanes were routinely derided along the lines of “chin-stroking noodling” by people who had never seen them rend ceilings with Jacket Hangs, Bury Your Love Like Treasure (a riff for the ages, the equal of Jumpin’ Jack Flash) or Tom Verlaine’s Breaking In My Heart, which often saw the number of musicians on stage going well into double figures.
I yearn for another chance to witness all this but the records could keep you going for years, musically and lyrically – I also had the good fortune to be among the 50 winners of a copy Swagger in the Sounds (which would go out of business a year later) prize crossword and can brandish the compliments slip as proof.

So are lyrics poetry? They don’t have to be but, when written by Gerard Langley, they usually are – and I haven’t quoted a word from them here, so that you can savour them for yourself. (PG).