34. MERCURY REV – YERSELF IS STEAM (1991)

When Paul Rothchild was recording the first Doors album, he banned the group from using any effects. He felt this would keep the music timeless, not being sonically linked to any of the current fads or gimmicks. Mercury Rev achieved the same end on Yerself Is Steam, by different means. They use EVERYTHING. They had a flute player. They had a visionary producer (the scope of this record is so wide it had to be recorded on 35mm magnetic film). Their two guitar players are aware of the lineage of psychedelic punk rock history that led up to their particular place and time, but not enslaved or restricted by it in any way.  There’s never a feeling of them trying to ape anyone, looking over their shoulder saying “Are you sure Jimi did it this way?” No, they sound more in love with the sheer joy and chaos they are wringing out of their strings. They also had David Baker, a loose cannon credited with “vocals (when it sounds like something he would do)”. This wasn’t something that just happened on record. When I saw them in Glasgow around the release of this record, he’d climb off the stage and wander around the venue when not involved. The tension between his David Thomas-like bellowing, crooning, whispers and mumbles and Jonathan Donahue more melodic “vocals (when left to himself)” would only survive one more album (the equally great Boces), but for a couple of years there wasn’t another band like them.

Chasing A Bee opens the album. The line “my primitive words match my primitive heart” sums up an air of innocence that runs through the album. Starting slow and low with flute and acoustic guitar David Baker sings of mellow seducers meeting eager seekers. Jonathan Donohue takes over for the chorus, and the song builds beautifully until the 3 minute 10 mark when all holy hell is unleashed. A descending four note flute battles with screeching guitars, and the whole thing builds and decays into the two chord Seeds style stomper Syringe Mouth.

Coney Island Cyclone is sheer joy. The sound on this is as refreshing as a sea breeze in your face. The opening guitar sounds like its trying to work out The Creation’s The Girls are Naked. The refrain of “I won’t chicken out” will worm its way into your brain until it becomes your mantra for life. David Baker is back with an absurdly low voice on Blue and Black, as the band behind him channel side one of Neu! 75.

The brilliantly titled Sweey Oddysee Of A Cancer Cell T’Th’ Center Of Your Heart closes side one (or Rocket Side) which sounds like they’ve copped Billy Duffy’s guitars circa She Sells Sanctuary before galloping off like Black Sabbath at their most motorik (really!) or Will Sergeant jamming with Godspeed! You Black Emperor. This doesn’t do the song justice. Really, you need to hear this.

Just as Tommy Hall conceived Easter Everywhere as two complete halves, each side designed to be listened to on repeat, Yerself Is Steam works best on vinyl. The second side (or Harmony side) has a completely different atmosphere, more introspective and melancholy, like side two of On The Beach. Frittering is a meandering acoustic Sunday night come down of a song. Its beautiful chord progression isn’t a million miles away from the more conventional songs that would provide them with greater success on Deserters Songs, but here they just let it drift around, soothing your soul for nearly nine gorgeous minutes.

After a brief noise interlude, the twelve minute Very Sleepy Rivers closes the album. Live this would be played as part of a medley with Miles Davis’ Shhh/Peaceful, and gives you a good idea of where their heads were at. I’ve never really had a clue what this song was about, David Baker’s vocals, when he’s not whispering are very low in the mix, just another instrument. One of those songs where I’d rather leave its spooky mystery intact

This line up would only manage one more album together. David Baker would leave after Boces, and Suzanne Thorpe would leave after See You On The Other Side. The band that would record Deserters Songs, although great, were a different proposition altogether.  The genius of this record is that it sounds like it was either thrown together or meticulously planned. I suspect the latter, given the subsequent records they would go on to make. No band gets that lucky. (TT)

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Glasgow 1991
When David Baker, strolled nonchalantly through the sparse audience towards the bar, it was during the middle of a song. More specifically, it was during the middle bit of a song. Perhaps you remember the ‘middle bit’? For the uninitiated, the ‘middle bit’was the cacophonous (90 second or so) build up in the heart of the song, preceding the climax, and at the 1980s indie disco one regularly struggled to find the dance moves to fit this shapeless passage of sound. Sonic Youth were fine purveyors of the middle bit (think Expressway To Yr Skull or Silver Rocket) but by 1991 signed now to a major label, they were long past the godlike glory of their Sister and Daydream Nation albums. But Mercury Rev had stepped into fill the void and, to these ears at least. their first album remains their most satisfying. It may not have the refinement and poise of Deserters’ Songs. As their debut, it certainly had only a fraction of the audience. But it contains their original essence: meandering pulsating space rock (‘Chasing A Bee’) with some disturbingly eerie melodies (‘Frittering’, ‘Very Sleepy Rivers’) amidst the white noise. What’s more, it is one of only two album recordings to contain the mad ramblings of Mr. Baker – a true rock’n’roll eccentric. The later albums may have hit big but they missed his spooky charm. (JJ)
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9. THE CLIENTELE – SUBURBAN LIGHT (2000)

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)

5. BRIDGET ST. JOHN – ASK ME NO QUESTIONS (1970)

bridgetBridget St. John is the forgotten femme of English folk. While Sandy Denny remains the more revered and celebrated, and others such as Vashti Bunyan have been rediscovered and championed by the revivalists, Bridget’s reputation has by contrast, stalled if not in fact, been diminished. As a stalwart of the UK folk scene in the late 60s and early 70s, Bridget was a friend and contemporary of John Martyn (who enjoyed longer-lasting success) and Nick Drake, whose posthumous prestige is arguably unmatched by any other British songwriter.

And yet it could all have been so different. Her first three albums, released on John Peel’s Dandelion label feature her languid and slightly fragile songs, delivered unhurriedly in her solemn Nico-esque murmur. Bridget was big news then, a Peel favourite, touring extensively (even supporting David Bowie!) and featuring regularly in Melody Maker end of year fan polls. After the release of ‘Jumblequeen’ in 1974, nothing much was heard for the next twenty years. An odd live appearance here and there in the late 90s and then…silence.

It is hard to see why she remains in such relative obscurity. This, her debut album, perhaps lacks the lush orchestral accompaniment of its immediate successor ‘Songs For A Gentle Man’, but this merely showcases her intricate guitar playing and husky tone more starkly. And the songs speak for themselves.

‘Autumn Lullaby’ barely gets into first gear but is sweet and gorgeously melancholic. Beside it, while just as stripped down, ‘Curl Your Toes’ and ‘I Like To Walk With You In The Sun’ sound peculiarly buoyant.

On a number of songs Bridget laments the end of a failed relationship. In ‘Broken Faith’ with sensitivity she bids her beau farewell ‘but if along the way, I hold your hand; be not angry, be not hard’, suggesting some inner turmoil of her own – or could this just be a line symptomatic of a lost libertarian age of ‘free love’? ‘Hello Again Of Course’ seems to return to the same theme: ‘You never really go away; it’s just the space between us growing; A little more than it ever has before.’ Delicate, poignant stuff.

On the spectral ‘Lizard Long Tongue Boy’ however, she sounds almost vampish. Here the atmosphere is given an erotic charge which may lack subtlety but demonstrates there is far more to her armoury than her idyllically nuanced verse.

The last 2 minutes of the finale, the exquisite title track, consist almost entirely of birdsong and the distant peel of church bells. Now this is English folk at its most ambrosial.(JJ)