102. THE BLUE ORCHIDS – THE GREATEST HIT (MONEY MOUNTAIN) (1982)

Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative, Neo-Psychedelia, Post-Punk

From its taut rectangular opening riff, a delirious organ suddenly escapes like a rabbit from a trap, and we’re immersed in a swirling hypnodelic soup. The sound is fresh and yet strangely familiar, the melody whimsical, capricious, pulling in a multitude of directions. When my needle first dropped on ‘Sun Connection’, the opening track of The Blue Orchids’ debut album, The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain), I instantly succumbed to its spell.

Martin Bramah had waited patiently for this moment. As founding members of The Fall, he and Una Baines had watched as MES tightened an iron grip he would never relinquish. Una had been first to depart. When Martin joined her in early ’79, it felt like something of an artistic liberation.
Bramah would briefly reunite with Smith & co. in 1989, leaving after the rather splendid Extricate album. But after his first exit a decade earlier, the overwhelming feeling was one of relief: he now had the freedom to indulge his creative capacities in something which would manifest itself in the purest form of self-expression – music made by its makers, for its makers, “for the love and glory of it” as Bramah attests. His new project had originally been baptised The Blessed Orchids by Manc’s favourite punk-poet John Cooper Clarke. The band released two 45s on Rough Trade before producing one of post-punk’s greatest – and unfairly overlooked – albums.

It was a chaotic period, but one Bramah remembers with great fondness. Into the intoxicating mix were slung liberal portions of the Krautrock rhythms of Can and Neu! and illusive hints of The Velvets, Syd Barrett and The Doors, but if truth be told, it was difficult to neatly pin down the broad spectrum of influences at work.

The guitars on ‘A Year With No Head’ are brilliant, at first possessing the wiry rhythmic algebra of Talking Heads, before they tiptoe gingerly across constellations of stars recalling the somnolent intricacies of Tom Verlaine’s quieter moments. ‘Hanging Man’ takes the TH similarity a step further, pillaging the riff and the über neurosis from ‘Psycho Killer’ along its topsyturvy trajectory.
On the seething speed-fuelled pulse of ‘Dumb Magician’, it sounds like Michael Karoli’s guitar is lassoing the rings of Saturn, while ‘Tighten My Belt’ is a curious slice of dub-inflected No Wave funk which sounds like it’s migrated here from the Ottoman Empire. Musically this was a far more radical era. There was much more risk-taking and adventurousness, and space where this kind of bizarre melange sounded de rigeur.
As for influence, well how much UK indie music from the mid to late 80s was lifted from ‘Bad Education’ and ‘No Looking Back’? The latter is superb – like several other tracks here it sounds about 20 years ahead of its time, outflanking Interpol and The Strokes in as much the same way as the guitar at the finale briefly threatens to outpace its own feedback. The album closes with ‘Mad As The Mist And Snow’ which conjures a similarly portentous olde folke aura as ‘Space Odyssey’ – the closer on The Byrds’ Notorious Byrd Bros classic. It may feel like an incongruous finale, but adds an even denser layer of mystery to proceedings.

It sounds almost as if the band existed in their own little bubble, oblivious to the ’82 zeitgeist. Comparisons with contemporaries such as The Teardrop Explodes, Swell Maps and The Soft Boys persist, perhaps because those bands had a similar genius for harnessing the energy of punk and marrying that to a looser (consciously or subconsciously retro) psychedelic approach. Relations between punk’s primal itch and psychedelia’s improvisational aesthetic were in the hands of Bramah & company, unusually cordial.

The album shipped 10,000 copies, peaking at #5 on the UK Indie Charts, but the momentum would be short-lived. Ultimately for Bramah, it would be more important to remain true to his principles than to achieve any significant commercial success. An opportunity to work with Nico was beckoning, but things would not work out quite as planned, and the band temporarily lost their way. But despite a few leaner periods, they are still going strong today, and released a fine record this year with The Once And Future Thing. (JJ)

_________________________
Interview with Martin Bramah

 On reflection, was your first departure from The Fall more an artistic liberation than a cruel setback?

• Yes, you could call it an artistic liberation – I had proved myself as a composer/arranger in The Fall and I wanted the freedom to play with words too.

I have never thought of my departure as a cruel setback – I’ve always done things my own way in my own time. I left because I’d had enough of the situation at Fall HQ: Mark begged me to stay but I was determined to jump ship. It had been an intense two years and things were getting claustrophobic – plus Mark took it upon himself to decide what I had and hadn’t written without consulting me. You really can’t trust the writing credits on Fall albums – everything ex-members say is true in that regard.

> I think I read once that you had said those two Fall spells were distinguished by the shifting power dynamic – and that your second spell was characterised by an employer/employee relationship with Mark whereas in the beginning you had just been friends. Do you think when Una and yourself left in ’79, that marked the end of democracy and the beginning of Mark’s totalitarian leadership?

• First of all, Una left The Fall in December ’77, not long after Tony Friel – I mention this because people tend to forget Yvonne Pawlett’s great contribution to the band in ’78/’79.

The ‘totalitarian’ thing had been there from the start; it’s in Mark’s nature. At first it was Una who helped Mark hold the upper hand, as they were the only couple in the band and the ‘universe of two’ as they liked to refer to themselves. Then when they began to drift apart in the fall of ’77 Mark brought Kay Carroll in as his new manager/live-in-lover. Kay’s arrival was the real reason for the original band members leaving one by one because she always fought Mark’s corner and encouraged him to think of himself as a lone genius.

> What do you recall about the recording sessions for the album? Did you have much of a budget? Was it yourself or Tony Roberts who engineered/oversaw the final mix?

• Recording ‘The Greatest Hit’ was a blast from start to finish: a drug driven couple of weeks (mainly speed, weed n poppers at that point) in a converted warehouse on Blossom St. in Ancoats, Manchester. It was Tony Robert’s eight-track studio (he’d had the honour of playing drums on the classic ‘Gordon Is A Moron’ by Jilted John). Geoff Travis at Rough Trade figured Blue Orchids needed the good old-fashioned restriction of an eight-track tape machine, so we booked Tony’s place.

We didn’t have much of a budget really, but Geoff did hire the guy who had just produced ‘Ghost Town’ for The Specials to produce our album – well this producer (I forget his name) sat there for the first week, appalled at our antics and contributed very little. We finished all the recording in the first week and our Rough Trade paid for producer took the tapes home with him to do some rough mixes (he was famous in Birmingham for his ‘Lovers Rock’ mixes). When we heard the results we were not happy and so we went back into Tony’s place to mix the album ourselves, which took up the second week. Tony Roberts engineered the recording and I oversaw the final mix.

> I’m hearing the pulsing Krautrock rhythms of Can and Neu! and even Michael Karoli’s guitar landscapes on ‘Dumb Magician’. Elsewhere, traces of The Velvets, Syd Barrett here and there, and The Doors. What else do you remember listening to around that time?

• I love Michael Karoli’s guitar playing, he’s definitely in my top ten guitarists list. I was listening to all the above-mentioned artists of course – plus maybe Donovan, Richard Hell, Iggy Pop, The Modern Lovers and The Kinks.

> On ‘Sun Connection’ as well as elsewhere, the sound is warm and infectious. I’ve heard Una’s playing come in for a bit of criticism, as if she was using a different music sheet, but I love the way the instruments move away from one another to create this loose swirling hypnotic sound. Was there a bit of freedom to improvise there, or were the individual parts written that way?

• Sun Connection is a fusion of three musical ideas into one concept piece. I wrote all the guitar and bass parts with quite a rigid arrangement from start to finish. But with the keyboards I just told Una what key the various sections were in, and let her improvise, so the keyboards seem to flow through a structure, like light through stained glass. I think it works really well and no criticism has ever reached my ears.

> As a document, how far is The Greatest Hit the missing link between the frenetic post-punk of The Fall, Wire & Swell Maps and the jangling indie guitar sound of Felt and The Weather Prophets, which looked back to ’67 as much as to ’77?

• I am not qualified to answer this question, as I was not trying to be the missing link between anything. My main intention was to create something ‘in the now’ something modern but quite plain in a way. I was trying to drop all the baggage of rock cliché and say ‘Here I stand today – a young man in the city – this is how I feel – this is what I think – this is my spirituality – these are my aims.’ and so on. It is for others to decide where the album fits into the scheme of things.

> Was the album title a drug reference or a commentary on capitalist greed – it was recorded just as the impact of Thatcherism was leading to strife in the inner cities – as otherwise the lyrics don’t strike me as political, more personal. Who/what were the major influences on your lyric writing?

• The title of the album played on both those ideas, obviously, that’s what made it interesting, but it was taken from a line in Sun Connection: ‘Think I’ll go out, buy myself a soul – the greatest hit in the world.’ So getting a soul is the ultimate hit! Also there were so many ‘greatest hits’ albums out there in every bargain bin that I thought it would be funny to use ‘The Greatest Hit’ singular as it had never been done – again it appealed to my sense of the title being something plain.

As to the major influences on my writing, that’s hard to say as I pull the germs of ideas from all over the place; books, movies, folk music, but as far as rock writing goes I was very influenced in my early efforts by the ideas that Bowie and Eno laid out in the late ’70s, like a lot of other young budding writers from that era. Ideas of deconstruction and abstraction, fragmentation and getting the essence of things – but I always put my own original spin on the things I write – I have studied the content, but I don’t imitate the style.

> The Greatest Hit sounds incredibly fresh today, almost as if the band existed in a bubble, insulating yourselves from the ’81/’82 zeitgeist. It sold pretty well. Are you frustrated that at the time, you didn’t really build on that momentum?

• Frustrated? No. Momentum can be a dangerous thing for an artist who wants to stay in control of the creative process – momentum means commercial pressures come into play that most artists find hard to combat – the daily drip, drip of sound business advice from those with a stake in your success. Momentum and Hype, I always run a mile when I see them coming!

I make the music I want to make when I want to make it and I trust in it to work its way into the world by a kind of osmosis. I have never made music to make a living. I am that rare breed: The Great British Amateur – always much better than the professional because we do it for the love and glory of it.

But to answer your question: Yes, I suppose life did throw a couple of spanners into the works which stopped us conquering the world in the mid-eighties.

> How did the partnership with Nico come about? Where ultimately did it lead you?

• I was a teenage Nico fan. I had all her records. The last thing I ever expected was that she would turn up in Manchester – why would she? But one day she did.

Alan Wise my manager at the time called round to my place and asked me if I’d ever heard of this singer, a German woman called Nico… I said, ‘Yes of course,why?’ ‘Because she’s staying down the road at the Polex Hotel – do you want to come and meet her?’

It turned out Nico was staying at this cheap hotel in Whalley Range and she was looking for some musicians to back her. So we drove over there and I was ushered into her presence like she was some kind of guru cult leader. We talked about what I don’t remember but it must have gone well because we agreed to work togetheron her upcoming live shows, which I was obviously thrilled about. That led to a busy year of touring the UK and Europe acting as her backing band and support act, doing two sets a night. I learned a lot during my time with Nico for which I’ll always be grateful. However, the time came when I felt it we should draw a line under our work with Nico – we had our first album out and I didn’t want to become branded as being just her backing band. The trouble was that our rhythm section had slipped into heroin addiction, due to its availability around the Nicocrowd, and so they wanted to stay put on the gravy train.

This led to a split in the band, with our manager, bass player, drummer and crew all carrying on touring with Nico and her ‘Blue Orchids’ – while I put together a new line-up but lost some of the ‘momentum’ we had gathered up to that point.

> You’ve been making records to a smallish but loyal fan base ever since. What would you say have been the main developments in your music between the first album and The Once And Future Thing?

• No developments – every recording is different from the last – but has me at the core reacting to the times I’m in – making my ‘in the now’ statements with ‘style and flair’ as everything changes around me but stays the same! I have fun making records and I try and go deep into myself and the music but always putting the listener first – that is, always keeping the ‘layman’s ear’ (an idea I coined in the early Fall).

> The Awefull compilation gathers together the Rough Trade singles – and hopefully will open up your music to a new audience. You’ve been gigging too – notice any younger faces in the crowd?

• Yes, of course – the kids love this shit. lol

95. ATLAS SOUND – LOGOS (2009)

Experimental, Indie / Alternative, Neo-Psychedelia, Shoegaze

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Bradford Cox often seems completely baked. When he sings, it sounds like he’s sucking a tin of spaghetti hoops through his front teeth. He remains an enigma: interviews are relatively rare and he doesn’t really do social media (his blog seemed to dry up around three years ago). His band Deerhunter are indie big hitters: prolific, consistently remarkable. His solo project Atlas Sound has remained in the band’s shadow, despite yielding three fine albums, the second of which, Logos, was released during a genuinely purple patch of creativity, sandwiched between Deerhunter’s two best albums Microcastle/Weird Era and Halcyon Digest. And I think it could very well be the best thing Cox has ever done.

The sleeve, a bleached flashlight image of a skeletal torso turned inside out must surely be Cox? He suffers from Marfan Syndrome – but here it looks as if someone has reached in and pulled his heart from his chest. It can sound that way too at times. Cox plays around with different styles and genres. He is clearly someone who lives and breathes music. His songs are readily identifiable – drifting shells of wasted reverie with ghostly voices (‘The Light That Failed’, ‘An Orchid’…) irresistibly infectious slices of dislocated rhythmic pop (‘Shelia’, ‘Logos’, ‘Quick Canal’ – a lengthy motorik thang featuring Letitia Sadler), malformed garage sludge (‘Kid Klimax’), cryptic psych-collages full of electro-magnetic signals (‘Washington School’) and retro doo-wop’n’roll delivered by Cox like a faded angel through a couloir of cracked reverb (‘My Halo’).

And then there’s ‘Walkabout’ the album’s showpiece, made in collaboration with Noah Lennox  – a genius take on The Dovers’ obscure 1965 garage track ‘What Am I Going To Do?’ Mr. Panda Bear, as ever, sounds like he’s singing underwater, but like everything else on here the guiding hand is Cox’s. Ecce homo. Bradford Cox is the man and Logos his eternal word. (JJ)                               

86. BEACH HOUSE – DEVOTION (2008)

Dreampop, Indie / Alternative, Neo-Psychedelia

  
In the mid-1980s it would have been obvious to most – particularly to those with unwieldy stockpiles of vinyl – that it was only a matter of time before we were carrying our record collections around on a small portable device. A marginally less reasonable expectation of mine was that, without being troubled by having to make an awkward selection, I could instantly be dispatched the music my heart and soul desired. A telepathic transmitter (we’ll say app) would process neurological data, consult my hungry eardrums, and, bingo, the perfect musical recipe would materialise instantly. Alas, if this idea is ever fully realised, it will serve scant purpose. Nine times out of ten, the dial will point to Beach House.

So many of the things I love about music – the listless two chord purity of the ballads of The Velvet Underground and Mazzy Star, those swirling somniferous waltzes of Spiritualized, the empyreal sojourns of Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine and Hugo Largo, the spooky toy town keyboards of early Fall, the pagan folksiness of Vashti Bunyan and the Incredible String Band, not to mention Brian Wilson’s blessed gift for melody (his left ear has been left here, believe me!) – are manifest in the glorious six album harvest reaped by Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand over the last decade.

From the very beginning, on their self-titled debut album, Beach House orbited a universe of blurry memories and hazy dreams. Nebulous narratives alluded to fractured relationships, but everything in that low-fi reverie lacked definition and precision. Four years later the duo had transformed themselves into sophisto-dreampop auteurs, their third album Teen Dream, a purring dislocated pop classic, universally recognised as one of the decade’s landmark albums.

In between those two, they released Devotion in February 2008. It marks the precise moment where the confidence is surging but the ambition still held in check by a mushrooming adventurousness sufficient in itself to procure its own reward. The music at this point is still facing inwards, basking in its own glow; after Devotion it would reach outwards. No harm in that at all of course – it deserved a wider audience, and the subsequent albums are of consistently high quality – but something of the charming amateurishness was lost as the production became progressively more assured. The Suicide-al drones may have remained, but a little less would be heard of that primitive programming (those Casio-style rhythms and beats) or those yearning Wicker Man folk stylings. Scally’s guitar is often buried lower in the mix than it would be on the later albums – here it often sounds unobtrusive – fuddled pedal steel, frilly licks – and is certainly of secondary importance to the organ. Along with Legrand’s velvety Nicoisms, balanced with that magical childlike imagery, the versatility of the organ – equal parts Sale Of The Century game show, spooked out Munsters moongazing, and Cale-ist celeste à la ‘Northern Sky’ – is as integral to the sound here as it is on say The Doors or Felt’s Forever Breathes The Lonely Word.

‘Wedding Bell’ rolls along jauntily with a kooky harpsichord riff – Alex mixes up the guitar lines with a burst of garage fuzz, followed by backwards psych. In spite of the lyrical ambiguities, ‘You Came To Me’ is a gorgeously haunting slice of chamber pop; it’s choppy oriental rhythm resembles something explored previously on ‘Tokyo Witch’ and anticipates the epic ‘Take Care’ from Teen Dream. But here the magick lies in Legrand’s irresistible delivery, particularly on these swooning lines: “you came to me/in my dreams/and you spo-o-o-o-o-oke of everything/sweeter than the days/ that I was breathing.”



‘Gila’ has a knockout off-kilter melody – the bass hits its bottom note in a fleeting but jarring collision with the sparkling organ while Scally plays out a simple repetitive sonar rhythm and the phantasmagorical harmonies threaten to disintegrate completely… it’s the sort of song that books into your cranium for an extended vacation. Like a good host you welcome it warmly, but a warning: it may not check out on schedule. 

The languorous melancholia of ‘Turtle Island’ suggests a loneliness beyond repair: “By the dock of the pond, Turtle Island/I will wait for you there, creeping/Silently, I can’t keep you/Right behind me/All my days in the sun...” Likewise, on first hearing ‘Some Things Last A Long Time’ may be noticeable only for its brevity. However, the evocative lyric (by Daniel Johnston) hints at desperate heartache. As with the greatest love songs, it is what is left unsaid rather than what is voiced that matters. Beach House know this all too well and there is rarely anything explicit in what is being communicated. They simply intimate, we duly evaporate. I have found myself at times, eyes tightly shut, singing along to the words of the twinkling ‘Astronaut’ as if they had fallen out of the pages of a William Blake anthology, where, on paper, they are absurdly childlike. But the music is so ravishing they are afforded an uncommon poignancy. 

The holy fire of the solemnly gothic ‘Heart Of Chambers’ adds dark layers of density to proceedings. After momentarily threatening to mutate into ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ it recovers with its very own anthemic finale (“In our beds we’re the lucky ones/filled with the sun/In our beds we’re the lucky ones/fill us with the sun”) – this would become a Beach House trademark – the splicing together of two different song ideas into one, the second part a protracted coda, an unexpected left turn, the Beach House twist on the perfect pop song.

I can’t even begin to describe ‘Home Again’, the album’s closing track. For some reason unbeknownst to me, I am transported back in time: 26 years to be precise – 18 years before this song was even dreamt of! I realise this is illogical at best and can only imagine the song’s atmospheric sweep must resemble something I listened to once, as a young man, at a time when anything was possible. It possesses the power, the resonance to resurrect that daydreaming youthfulness, long ceded to the concerns and responsibilities of adulthood. Perhaps that time was my true ‘home’, the time when everything was simpler, more spontaneous, more free. And perhaps my love affair with Beach House is indicative of an onrushing midlife crisis as I long for a return to those lazy days. But, oh to have heard these wonderful songs when I was nineteen…

“Home Again/Constant heart of my devotion/Must be you, the door to open/Home again, be here, be with him/Will I swim out of your ocean?”
(JJ)

77. THE BEES – EVERY STEP’S A YES (2010)

Baroque Pop, Folk/ Folk-Rock, Indie / Alternative, Neo-Psychedelia, Psychedelic Folk

  If I said The Bees were masters of space and time, you may imagine them to sound something like Hawkwind. They don’t – but I suspect they have heard a fair amount of Hawkwind. In fact, they’ve probably listened to more records than just about any other band around – absorbing such an extensive array of influences from the popular music of the last 50 years that, listening to their albums, one finds oneself constantly attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to join the sonic dots. The Bees’ genius lies in their ability to sew beautiful new garments out of tired old rags. Some touchstones are immediately obvious – take for example the momentary snippet on ‘Change Can Happen’ where the phrasing and even lyrics are suddenly lifted from ‘That’s The Story Of My Life’ (Velvets’ 3rd) or consider how the fadeout of ‘Silver Line’ recalls the gassy euphoria of The Monkees’ ‘Teardrop City’. The Bees are masters of time because the spectrum of influences from which they have drawn – early Pink Floyd, Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, CSNY, Shack, roots reggae, Tropicalia et al – is not flaunted unashamedly, but is rather woven so inconspicuously into the band’s sound as to make it unmistakably their own. And against all the odds, their music sounds peculiarly modern.

‘Every Step’s A Yes’, their fourth LP, bears all the time honoured hallmarks of the ‘classic album’ – clocking in at 42 minutes (unusually short for the digital age), it’s ten beautifully crafted songs make for a brilliantly eclectic amalgam of sounds: slow ones and fast ones, toe tappers and ballads – characteristics of those indisputably great LPs of the past. It’s the kind of album which many of us middle-aged folk might find reassuringly familiar. In that sense it may be expedient to be a more mature listener (in years) to garner a true appreciation of it. And yet I am always struck by just how fresh and immediate it sounds. Sure, you’ll find nothing revolutionary here. When the album was released in October 2010, empires did not collapse, nor buildings fall. In fact, it’s probably fair to say, barely anyone noticed at all.

The Bees hail from the Isle of Wight. Perhaps that distance from the mainland has accentuated a sense of ‘otherness’. Because of that, their music betrays not the slightest hint of affectation. I imagine they are less tainted than more connected urban artists by the desire to be fashionable, to be part of a scene, whatever that means these days. They have utilised that space, that separate-ness to its full advantage. They use space in more creative ways too. For instance they recorded their debut album (the Mercury Music Prize-nominated) ‘Sunshine Hit Me’ in a small garden shed. The results – a kaleidescopic potpourri – virtually defied science. As if to emphasise their versatility, they recorded the next album at Abbey Road. The Bees demonstrate masterful control of the way sounds are arranged – the way the instruments move away from one another, at times creating beautifully eerie gaps (the keyboard on ‘Island Love Letter’, the strings on ‘Skill Of The Man’ for example).

‘Every Step’s A Yes’ has a relaxed energy (a ‘more mature’ sound, singer and multi-instrumentalist Paul Butler stated) while triumphantly showcasing their extraordinary palette. The buoyant opener ‘I Really Need Love’ has all the ravishing freshness of a sun-bursting early spring morning – he’s in love and the whole world’s going to know about it (“I wish that love will come/for each and every one/and I know I’m gonna get me some/in the shadow of the sun”) – with a simple breezy acoustic strum for accompaniment the whole thing then takes off in a swirling crescendo of sitars and soaring strings.

Alongside a brush of harp and crisp stinging guitar lines, ‘Winter Rose’ succumbs to a prime slice of horn-locking Lovers’ rock. In sharp contrast the stark folk-rock of ‘Silver Line’ could have slipped off the run out groove of Moby Grape’s debut album, while the controlled reverb in the panoramic production of ‘No More Excuses’ is astounding – one moment the guitars are like little ripples of water gently brushing the boats on the shore, the next they are twisting psych fizzballs worthy of The Chocolate Watchband or The Strawberry Alarm Clock. The arrangements here are exquisite (fiddle, harp, sitar, clavinette, harmonica, trumpet all chip in with a cameo appearance) but the production is never for a second over-bearing – somewhere between Syd’s Pink Floyd and Lennon twixt Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, it’s sublime harmonies soar effortlessly past steeples and peaks to scale the heavens. 

‘Tired Of Loving’ is a pretty if sorrowful plaint with ear melting West Coast harmonies. Then comes a spellbinding triple salvo: ‘Island Love Letter’ recalls the gorgeous ghostly lullabies of mid-period Incredible String Band or even Vashti Bunyan’s naively delicate charm. ‘Skill Of The Man’ has the sort of languid somnolence which Mick Head strove to perfect on the longer tracks from his superb Magical World Of The Strands LP, except that it is in every way superior. And warmer. And that’s a big compliment. Narcotic oblivion beckons with ‘Pressure Makes Me Lazy’, a blissed out potion of drifting guitars horns and strings. Glorious stuff. The album’s closer ‘Gaia’ (the nearest we have to a hit here), recorded with neo-folk wizard Devendra Banhart, is a rallying climax which abruptly brings to halt the ultra-soporific haze by means of a mariachi flavoured Spanish fiesta, calling to mind the band’s earlier flirtation with Latin sound, their cover of Os Mutantes’ ‘A Minha Menina’.

This is not some sub-Weller ‘worthy dad rock’ studiously indebted to rock tradition and empty posturing. The Bees are music lovers, first and foremost: there are no big egos involved, no lascivious tales of rock’n’roll excess. Instead, ‘Every Step’s A Yes’ is the sort of record you might imagine Syd Barrett, David Crosby or Skip Spence having made if they’d just held it together for a little while longer. Unlike those three however – it’s not a fragile album on the verge of disintegration, but rather an assured and confident work. It might well sound like the best album of 1968, or perhaps 1974. It was comfortably one of the finest in 2010, and if it sounded a little out of step to some at the time, that is only because perfectly balanced modern pop albums are a rare commodity these days. I urge you to get your hands on it – it is truly one to treasure. (JJ)

27. GRIZZLY BEAR – YELLOW HOUSE (2006) / (A) VECKATIMEST (2009)

Baroque Pop, Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative, Neo-Psychedelia

To propose that there might be a genius or two creating popular music in the 21st century may be anathema to those of a certain vintage. After all, Lennon, (Tim) Buckley, Van Vliet, and co. are no longer with us. Indeed one is liable to invite ridicule at the mere suggestion, but I would venture that if people are prepared to look hard enough there are at least a few, one of whom is Daniel Rossen, co-contributor to the wonderful NY foursome, Grizzly Bear.

Grizzly Bear began as a moniker for Ed Droste who, to little fanfare, released a low-fi debut entitled Horn of Plenty in 2004. For the second full-length feature, the ranks had swelled to include three other members, most significantly 23-year old Department of Eagles multi-instrumentalist, Rossen. Droste’s recruitment policy demonstrated shrewd judgement – in fact it was a masterstroke, Rossen’s widescreen West Coast sensibilities were less a musical appendage than the catalyst for a revolution in the band’s modus operandi.

The first fruits of this remoulding, Yellow House (recorded in Droste’s mother’s house), might sound at first like a bunch of (flamboyantly) half-baked ideas toiling in vain to find conventional form, and could be easily dismissed as such by the more casual, less discerning listener. But as the saying goes: ‘a new home slowly reveals it’s secrets’, so too with Yellow House.

Take the album’s opener for instance. ‘Easier’ patiently emerges from atmospheric woodwind and upright piano before being transfigured by Disneyesque harmonising and then an amalgam of sounds which I can only describe as a fantasia of bluegrass-flavoured Impressionism. Like much of the album, it features banjo, autoharp and glockenspiel, and if someone said to you that it was the most beautiful song they had ever heard, you could not feign surprise.

If Marla’s stalking waltzlike piano conveys a sense of foreboding, it is soon transfigured by a string arrangement which sounds like ghosts escaping from one of Debussy’s tone poems, weaving into the solemnity their alluring supernatural tapestries.

But it is not all rhapsody and capriccio. After a breezily acoustic beginning, the guitars on ‘On A Neck And A Spit’ hurtle, crash and collapse together causing an unnerving pile up, before Rossen raises the tempo with a buzzing (Roy) Harper-esque bastard-folk foot stomp. ‘Lullaby’ does what it says on the tin, until half way in it is violently ambushed by a gaggle of Grizzly guitars. While ‘Knife’ is at least more musically orthodox, and easily the closest to a ‘hit’ here, it’s lyrics  ( I want you to know / When I look in your eyes / With every blow / Comes another lie / You think it’s alright / Can’t you feel the knife?) mean it is unlikely it will find its way into your repertoire of songs to sing in the shower.

There is such a range of genre-hopping versatility on show here, that the result is the creation of something almost uncategorisable, and there is some evidence to suggest the band seek further afield than most for their musical inspiration, in particular to film soundtracks. Consider for example the unearthly harmonising on the incredibly complex ‘Central and Remote’, eerily redolent (3:24-4:03) of Krzysztof Komeda’s score for Polanski’s ‘Fearless Vampire Killers’. And is it just me, or does the achingly beautiful ‘interlude’ on the incomparable ‘Little Brother’ parallel Вячеслав Овчинников’s exquisite music for the ‘apples and horses’ dream sequence in Tarkovsky’s ‘Ivan’s Childhood’? In each case the meticulous craftsmanship, borrowed reference points or not, is to be admired and cherished.

The closer ‘Colorado’ with its densely layered vocal overdubs has to be heard to be believed. Imagine the Beach Boys ‘Smile’ version of ‘Cool Cool Water’ being recorded by Big Star during sessions for their ill-fated third album and you may get close. It’s a bewildering end to a bewitching album, one that ranks alongside ‘Forever Changes’ and ‘Spirit of Eden’ as one of music’s great documents of reinvention.

The last time of any note a group of precocious and wide-eyed musicians in their mid-20s retired to an old house to express with such versatility and virtuosity a new musical language, the result was Music From Big Pink’, an album that changed the course of popular music. No far-reaching influence was to follow from Yellow House but it is an historical document that will surely be blessed with similar longevity. It leaves you wondering: why isn’t all music this imaginative? The answer to that question is no secret. Put a sign up outside that Yellow House: ‘Daniel Rossen: Genius At Work’.

VECKATIMEST

What is implicit on Yellow House is made explicit on Veckatimest; what was alluded to is now clearly defined; what was hidden is now revealed; where there was a sophomoric air, there is now professorial authority; what sounded exploratory has now reached perfect distillation.
I can barely bring myself to talk about Veckatimest for fear of allowing some of it’s magic to somehow escape in a cloud of loquaciousness. It will suffice to mention that ‘Southern Point’ is the best one stop introduction to the band’s music, and that ‘I Live With You’ is one of the most impossibly beautiful things I have ever heard. So let me keep it simple: Veckatimest is very probably the greatest album of the 21st Century so far. (JJ)

9. THE CLIENTELE – SUBURBAN LIGHT (2000)

Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative, Neo-Psychedelia

In the beginning was the word. And the word was…Felt. Alasdair Maclean saw the word, scribbled on his school chum James Hornsey’s pencil case. The friendship was sealed and The Clientele was born. Or so the legend goes. The band formed in London in 1991, while the boys were still at school. It would be almost a decade before their first fragile songs emerged to a politely indifferent world.

These songs, a compilation of early recordings including singles and B Sides were for the most part recorded on an eight-track portastudio above Innes Phillips’ flat in 1996. Phillips, guitarist and one of the founder members, would leave and go on to form his own band The Relict, before these songs eventually saw the light of day in 2000. As for the collection of songs assembled here on Suburban Light…well you have to trust me on this one…it is arguably one of the most perfect albums from any English band in the last twenty five years. Yes, it is that good.

Comparisons with Felt are obvious (‘We Could Walk Together’s guitar line for example), NZ’s The Chills perhaps less so (listen to the ghostly guitar on ‘An Hour Before The Light’, uncannily reminiscent of The Chills’ classic ‘Pink Frost’), but it is most often claimed the band are musically indebted to The Velvet Underground. Certainly ‘Reflections After Jane’ owes a nod to ‘Candy Says’ or ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ but I wonder if the comparison is apt. Indeed, perhaps it’s a little lazy. In reality the two bands inhabit entirely different worlds. The Clientele’s reverb-drenched songs of wistful suburban ennui the perfect counterpoint to the urban brutality and debonaire perversions of the Velvets. The lyrical contrast is even more spectacular: compare The Velvets’ catalogue of junkies, transvestites and freaks who send themselves by long-distance post in cardboard boxes; to the Clientele’s preference for documenting rainy Sunday afternoons in the park, or walking through the crowds with “Miss Jones” (of whom nothing is revealed, but whom I imagine to be a rather pretty but stuffy English Literature student). Perhaps a more intuitive comparison than the Velvets could be made with Galaxie 500 (performing a cover of ‘Waterloo Sunset’). Whatever comparison one makes, the band would never sound quite like this again. The songs on their first album proper, The Violet Hour did not quite match up (with a few mis-steps along the way). Edges would be softened, the production become more sophisticated. The later albums with the exception of Strange Geometry (which is their other indisputably classic record) somehow strangely failed to recapture the thematic harmony of this first release. It is particularly unusual for a compilation to achieve such a singular vision, such a feeling of unity, but it’s there.

 

Despite greater, though still very limited success on the other side of the Atlantic, The Clientele remain as quintessentially English as an episode of Camberwick Green. Had they been children of a different era they would no doubt have been invited to compose the soundtrack for Bronco Bullfrog, Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush or some other cult late 1960s Brit youth film. The occasional backwards guitar loop alongside MacLean’s penchant for colourful cravats places the band at least spiritually and aesthetically in that era. So, right place, wrong time perhaps? Well, not exactly…there is nothing contrived about the Clientele’s Englishness. Neither gimmick nor motif, rather it emanates organically from their music like the dispersion of light through a prism.

“If we’re on Delancey Street at night,
In the after train ride quiet,
Barking dogs by Highgate Pond,
Something’s here but something’s gone’ McLean sings on ‘Joseph Cornell’ – it is a typically evocative mood piece and the album is littered with such examples:
‘The taxi lights were in your eyes
So warm against St. Mary’s spires
The carnival was over in the rain
And arm in arm through Vincent Street.
The evening hanging like a dream
I touched your face and saw the night again.” (‘Saturday’)

These lost and unrepeatable moments of nostalgia and yearning, moments so vivid and personal are detailed with such precision for time and place, yet somehow paradoxically become universally tangible and almost unbearably poignant for the listener, who immersed in their atmosphere, casts his own shadow upon those spaces and places. I saw The Clientele play to a sparse audience at The Woodside Social in Glasgow in 2005. Perhaps not an ‘I was there’ moment but imprinted on my memory nonetheless. A few members of Belle & Sebastian, one or two from Glasgow folkies Lucky Luke and a few shy-looking snappily dressed mods. Almost their perfect audience. I remember walking out in the cold air afterward, the hazy drunken glare of the street lights providing the backdrop to the band hurriedly throwing their gear into the back of the van. And walking away into the night. Clearly one of those time and place moments – the spell had worked.

Post-millennium there exists very little consensus of opinion on the greatest albums of our age. It would be more straightforward to ask George Galloway to publicly extol the virtues of US foreign policy than expect acquiescence from others in this regard. Perhaps in a progressively individualistic culture which is post-everything, with few recognisable musical genres or subcultures, we have reached that point where consensus is virtually impossible. So we claim precedence for our individual favourites. And they become all the more precious for it. Suburban Light is one of those to treasure. The Clientele are the great lost English band of the new millennium, as genteel yet vital as Nick Drake, as elusive and undervalued as The Television Personalities, and musically, comfortably the equal of Felt. Their early songs, reflective and melancholic possess an enduring appeal. They will haunt you. Let them into your life. (JJ)