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Posts from the ‘Music’ Category

Midyear Music

Because it’s getting toward halfway through 2016 I thought I might share a few of the albums I’ve enjoyed so far this year.

Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
Underneath the ferociously political lyrics A Moon Shaped Pool is the poppiest Radiohead album in years and perhaps not coincidentally the first one that’s resonated with me for almost a decade. Although the video for ‘Burn the Witch’ is so brilliant it could probably carry the album on its own.

 

PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project
Hope Six
isn’t as good as Let England Shake (although what is?), at least partly because Harvey is clearly hitting up against the limits of the popular song’s ability to communicate complex arguments, but it’s still genuinely thrilling a lot of the time, and Harvey’s passion and fury remain as exciting (and salutary) as ever.

 

Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Will Toledo has been recording albums alone for years, a process that led to the release of his excellent Teens of Style a couple of years ago, but his new album Teens of Denial is his first record with the backing of a proper band, and it’s incredible. They wear their influences on their sleeves, but every one of these mini-epics of suburban desire and despair is like a tiny novel, with all the variousness and passion that implies. I need a few more weeks to get to grips with it properly but it might just be my album of the year so far.

 

The Jayhawks, Paging Mr Proust
It’s been a while since I listened to Hollywood Town Hall and Rainy Day Music, and the first of the Jayhawks’ reunion records passed me by a couple of years ago, but their new one, Paging Mr Proust, is a bit of a gem. Lovely, literate folk rock that owes a little to the Byrds and a little to REM (no doubt at least partly because it was produced by Peter Buck) but never feels rooted in the past.

 

Parquet Courts, Human Performance
Parquet Courts have always been one of those bands I felt like I should love but never quite did. But their new album, Human Performance, is terrific, and filled with tight, driving songs.

 

Beverly, The Blue Swell
Because there can never be enough dreamy, blissed-out noise pop in the world.

 

Cate Le Bon, Crab Day
Imagine a fractured 2016 version of Nico and you’ve got the general idea. Easily as good as her last couple of albums. The film that accompanies it is also splendidly weird.

 

The Last Shadow Puppets, Everything You’ve Come to Expect
I think Alex Turner is one of the great contemporary songwriters, and although there’s something a little too considered and contrived about his work with Miles Kane (and some fairly icky lyrics) there’s still a lot to like about the baroque, Scott Walkerish Everything You’ve Come to Expect.

 

David Bowie, Blackstar
I wrote about Blackstar shortly after Bowie’s death. I haven’t changed my view: it’s a thrilling, mercurial album, his best since Scary Monsters, and a reminder of what his death robbed us of.

 

There are also a number of things coming out in the next little while I’m excited about (new Kills! new Band of Horses!) and more than a few things I need to listen to more carefully (the new Lucinda Williams for one) but for now they seem like enough.

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David Bowie: Loving the Alien

Aladdin SaneAt first I thought it must be some kind of mistake. Not just because he’d just released an album two days before, not just because the description of a courageous battle with cancer seemed to contradict the images of him at the opening of his musical, Lazarus, only a few weeks before, but because it didn’t seem possible. Although he himself had been an elusive presence for more than a decade, refusing interviews, living if not in seclusion (he was in New York, after all) then certainly out of the public eye, his music and the characters and imagery it gave shape to often seemed more present than they had ever been.

In the end it took a tweet from his son, the director Duncan Jones, to convince me. “Very sorry and sad to say it’s true. I’ll be offline for a while. Love to all,” he wrote, above a photo of him on his famous father’s shoulders as a baby. And as I read it I knew it wasn’t a hoax. The great transformer had managed one last metamorphosis, one last surprise.

I was in shock, I realise now, unable to process the news. Later I would give way to tears more than once, surprising myself. Nor was I alone. As the news spread social media and the internet lit up, people moving online to express their sense of loss and disbelief. At first I thought it was just people I knew, people of an age to have grown up with his music, but as the hours passed it became clear it was more than that. Late in the evening I opened Facebook on my computer and scrolled downwards for what seemed like minutes through screen after screen of people from all walks of life sharing articles, videos, personal reflections and snippets of songs, united in their grief.

In a way this sort of reaction is understandable. Music is one of the ways we remember ourselves, its rhythms and melodies connecting us to the people we once were, all those other versions of our selves that we bear within. This capacity to conjure forth not just memory but something both more profound and more fragile is the one of the secrets of its power, and part of the reason losing the person who gave shape to that music is to lose something of that connection to the people we once were, almost as if some part of us has passed out of the world.

That was part of it for me, but it was more than that as well. I discovered Bowie in 1980. It was a bad time for me. I was in my first year of high school, my parents’ marriage was coming apart and I was desperately overweight and so lonely it hurts me to think about it even now. And then, one Sunday, I turned on Countdown and there was the video for ‘Ashes to Ashes’.

 

It’s difficult to overstate the effect that encounter had on my 13 year-old self. The video and the song were like a glimpse of a world I’d only ever imagined, somewhere strange and beautiful and filled with adult feelings of regret and self-loathing I only barely understood. Yet they spoke to me in an intense and powerful way. Only a few days after seeing it I bought the album, blowing several weeks of my pocket money in a single hit.

In recent years critics have tended to regard the Berlin Trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger as the most significant phase Bowie’s career. Much as I love the three of them, and Low in particular, I’m not sure it’s a judgement with which I concur. Yet either way, this tendency has meant Scary Monsters is often treated as a sort of afterthought, a moment of stasis before Bowie made another decisive break with his past.

To my mind this is a mistake, and not just because Scary Monsters features two of Bowie’s best and most recognisable singles in ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘Fashion’, as well the glorious ‘Teenage Wildlife’ and the swerving ‘Because You’re Young’. Instead it’s a mistake because it’s the album on which the vision Bowie had been articulating in his Berlin years was distilled and then turned inside out, the elegant ennui and Steve Reich minimalism of Low’s electronic instrumentals cast away in the wailing wall of Robert Fripp’s guitar and the looping tapes of tracks such as ‘It’s No Game’, producing a record as ferocious and driven and passionate as anything Bowie ever recorded.

Either way, my 13 year-old self loved it, seduced by its drama and its steely elegance. And wanting more I moved on, first to Changesone: Bowie, a compilation that began with ‘Space Oddity’ and ended with ‘Golden Years’, transporting the listener from his first hit to to Station to Station (an album that I have come to regard as one of his most brilliant, not least because its expansiveness and precision are so at odds with his psychological disorder when it was recorded), and then its sequel, Changestwo, which supplemented these with more tracks from his early years and cuts from the Berlin albums and Scary Monsters.

In this age of instantaneous information I think it’s easy to forget how remote the wider world often seemed in the 1980s. You learned about music by listening to the radio and watching Countdown, hanging around record shops, or flicking through magazines in newsagents. The music you could hear was confined to what you could afford to buy, or the tapes we passed from hand to hand.

That meant that, at least at the beginning, my experience of Bowie was largely about an engagement with the songs, an engagement that only deepened as I moved out from my Changes compilations and began to buy the albums; first Ziggy Stardust, then Diamond Dogs and Heroes, or as with Aladdin Sane and the then-disappointing, now-delightfully loose Lodger, to tape the copies I glimpsed in the record collections of my friends’ older brothers and sisters. Each new one came as a surprise, as the songs I knew from it opened out into new worlds, glimpses of worlds of strangeness and urgency I hadn’t realised how much I wanted.

But as I grew older and began to watch late night music shows I began to encounter him in other ways as well, glimpsing videos of him in concert, of him performing songs such as ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Heroes’ and ‘Starman’, or in Nicholas Roeg’s (entirely baffling to my 15 year-old self) The Man Who Fell To Earth.

Looking at them now what strikes me about him is his delicacy and otherworldliness, the way he seemed to challenge our ideas of sexuality not just through his clothes and hair, but through his embrace of a particular kind of vulnerability and otherness. His beauty transcended gender, made him both male and female, human and alien.

This rejection – or transcension – of categories was a central part of his appeal in the 1970s and 1980s (as well as part of what made his sojourn in the relentlessly corporate and drearily macho Tin Machine so uniquely depressing). For by demonstrating it was possible to be both and neither, he made it possible to imagine other ways of being, ways that involved different kinds of sexuality, other kinds of beauty. Just as Morrissey would for another generation a decade or two later, Bowie offered people – and teenage boys in particular – a different model for masculinity, and more importantly suggested that being an outsider wasn’t something to be afraid of, it was something to be embraced and celebrated.

All these things mattered to me as a teenager, often profoundly. But Bowie did more than suggest other ways of being, he also opened the door to a wider world, one filled with glamour and danger and most importantly sexual and personal possibility. Nor was this possibility always imaginative, for as my awareness of his work expanded it brought me into contact with other musicians and artists, not just The Velvet Underground, but Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, and in a roundabout way artists like Patti Smith and Talking Heads. Without Bowie my teenage self might never have encountered Reed’s Transformer, or understood that its evocation of the lives of New York’s demi-monde wasn’t the leering innuendo the macho DJs who played ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ on commercial radio took it to be but something delicate and beautiful and true, or experienced the wild exaltation of Patti Smith’s Horses.

After Scary Monsters Bowie retreated for a time. There were singles – the magnificent deconstructed gospel of his duet with Freddie Mercury and Queen, ‘Under Pressure’, his collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ – but for three years he was largely invisible to my teenage self.

Then, in 1983, he reappeared with Let’s Dance, the album that together with the tour that followed, turned him into a superstar. These days it looks like his first fatal misstep, the moment when he elected to transform himself into a conventional rock star, but in 1983 it was perfect, capturing the world’s desire to shuck off the confusion and darkness of the 1970s and the early 1980s, to embrace something colourful and glamorous yet uncomplicated (and after all what could be less complicated than his emptied out version of Iggy Pop’s ‘China Girl’, or the frankly dire ‘Ricochet’?). And I have to confess that even if there was a part of me that longed for the other Bowie I already loved, the one whose shifting identities and danger suffused records like Scary Monsters and Heroes, I was dazzled by this new version of him, so much so that at 16 I wanted nothing more than to be him.

The second half of the 1980s and the 1990s were a dark time for Bowie. In the aftermath of the success of Let’s Dance he was initially becalmed, and then, like a drowning man, began to flounder. The almost uncanny feel for the zeitgeist that had sustained him through the 1970s and 1980s seemed to have deserted him, his endless reinventions (dance music! drum and bass! rock opera!) suddenly seeming desperate rather than inspired, his conceptual language, its tortured painters and fascination with religion, hackneyed and faintly embarrassing. There were moments of brilliance like ‘Absolute Beginners’, but as the years passed they were fewer and fewer, so much so that when in 2004 he disappeared from view after a heart attack on stage in Germany it almost seemed like a relief.

In fact in the years before his retirement he had been staging a comeback of sorts, perhaps as a result of reuniting with producer Tony Visconti, recording not one but two albums in Heathen and Reality which, while not bearing comparison with his best work, nonetheless showed some of the clarity and purpose that had been lacking in the previous two decades, something that is clearly audible in songs like the wonderfully menacing ‘New Killer Star’. Yet in the years after his heart attack he chose not to return to recording or touring, choosing instead to retreat into what most people took to be retirement.

Perhaps because he had vacated the stage, the years after 2004 saw a growing interest in his work, and more particularly the significance of his achievements in the 1970s. There were of course the reissuing and remastering of old records that is the bread and butter of the legacy star, but alongside it there was an uptick in academic and critical interest, producing books of the calibre of Hugo Wilcken’s thrilling study of Low and leading, almost as if by design, to the V&A’s magnificent retrospective, David Bowie Is.

Yet there was little question that what was being curated by these writers and historians was not a living body of work but a legacy. Bowie the man had essentially disappeared, variously believed to be on the point of death, disfigured by strokes, or simply enjoying domestic life and fatherhood. Until, that is, 8 January 2013, when, without warning, he released a new single and a new video, recorded and filmed in secret, and simultaneously announced plans for a new album.

Unlike his work in the decades leading up to his retirement, which had often evinced a curiously uneasy relationship with his work in the 1970s, this new single deliberately invoked his best work, a connection that was made explicit by the cover of the album, The Next Day, which took the iconic image of Bowie that adorned the cover of Heroes and pasted the title of the new album over it.

 

This was clearly a new Bowie, one not beholden to the past but not afraid of it either, seeing it as something to be deployed and mined. For some I think this was disappointing, suggesting the sort of standing still Scary Monsters is sometimes accused of, the stasis that was always anathema to his best work. Yet I found it thrilling, not just for the way it engaged with his past without ever allowing it to overshadow the new, but for its lyrical focus and political fury, the ominous balance of regret and possibility that inheres in the title, its simultaneous suggestion of renewal and admonition. These are qualities that are given stark and terrifying power in the opening track, in which he chants “The body left to rot in a hollow tree/It’s branches throwing shadows/On the gallows for me/And the next day/And the next/And another day”, words that turn the promise of resurrection or reincarnation one glimpses in the image of the body in the tree into something horrifying and endless. But they are also audible in the circling motion of the brooding ‘Love is Lost’, its unsettling evocation of the transience of identity and the way violence shadows the rootlessness of modernity: “Your country’s new/Your friends are new/Your house and even your eyes are new/Your maid is new and your accent too/But your fear is as old as the world”.

The Next Day was also notable for the manner of its release. Not just the degree to which it came as a surprise to all, but by Bowie’s refusal to go through the usual rituals that accompany the release of a new album by an artist of his age and stature. There were no interviews, no exclusive features, no media performances. Indeed his only real engagement with the media was a list of ideas he sent to the novelist Rick Moody, who used them to sustain an extended riff on the album and Bowie’s oeuvre published a few weeks after the album’s release.

Whether this was a deliberate strategy, a way of forcing the media to focus not on him but the album (something it did very effectively) or a way of protecting he and his family’s privacy (or indeed both) it forced critics and the public to focus not on him but his work, and made clear he was no longer interested in the business of celebrity.

Fascinatingly it also signalled the beginning of a creative resurgence. He began work on the stage show, Lazarus, a sequel of sorts to The Man Who Fell to Earth, began recording another new album, and while he still avoided the media, insisting on his privacy, there was even talk by some of a possible tour.

That new album Blackstar, was released the Friday before last, its release timed to coincide with Bowie’s 69th birthday. Although I had been looking forward to it for weeks I held off listening to it until the Sunday afternoon, partly because my unexamined desire to own it in physical form had held me back from streaming it,  partly because I wanted to be able to give it my full attention.

Despite my excitement I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of it. The pre-release publicity had emphasised his decision to record with a group of New York jazz musicians instead of his more usual collaborators, a concept I found unsettling, not least because I’m not usually enamoured of jazz, especially in its more experimental incarnations. And while I’d admired them I’d also found the singles that had preceded somewhat baffling, the videos that accompanied them cryptic and confusing, their imagery poised  somewhere between nightmare and the overwrought parody of Floria Sigismondi’s video for ‘The Next Day’.

But by the time it was halfway through I was ecstatic. Here was something as strange and mercurially beautiful as anything he’d created in years. Gone were the grinding guitars and heritage rock of The Next Day; in their place was a free-floating, liquid ominousness, broken here and there by sudden flashes of soaring, melodic beauty like those that break through in the last third of the ten minute title track, or the gorgeous closing ballad, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’.

It was also, like The Next Day, an album that begged to be analysed, its meanings teased out. What were we to make of the image of the astronaut lying dead at the opening of the video for ‘Blackstar’, or the the English evergreens the narrator is running toward in ‘Dollar Days’? Why after so many years had he elected to produce an album without his image on the cover, opting instead for a simple graphic? Was this an album about beginnings or endings? About ISIS? About the end of the world or power of love? Or was it something more inscrutable than that, a piece of deliberately confounding late-Bowie gameplay?

In the end we only had to wait two days for the key to its mysteries, the realisation this was not just another album, but a swan song, a work created not just in the full knowledge of his impending death, but in the belief he would not live long enough to see it released, that it would be a message from beyond the grave.

We are taught to be wary of reading autobiography into art, if only to avoid the tendency to literalise it induces, thereby eliding the complex ways in which experience is transfigured by the artistic process, its constituent elements subsumed into something new, but with Blackstar that admonition feels pointless, for it really is a kind of summa, a work designed to be listened in full awareness of its creator’s looming mortality. Even the stark black and white of its cover suggests an act of self-erasure, as if the man behind it is eliminating himself, perhaps in completion of the process foreshadowed in the covering of his face on the sleeve of The Next Day. Likewise the image of the astronaut lying dead on some alien planet that opens the video for ‘Blackstar’ becomes almost impossible not to read as the final resting place of the trajectory his cosmic Major began in 1969 in ‘Space Oddity’, the dead planet and black star overhead suggesting a universe in the last stages of senescence. Even the album’s title took on new meaning once somebody made the connection to the song of the same name by Elvis Presley, the first verse of which – “Every man has a black star/A black star over his shoulder/And when a man sees his black star/He knows his time, his time has come” – underlines Bowie’s certainty about where he is heading.

There is something astonishing about this choice, the idea one’s own death might be a kind of performance. Like so much else that Bowie did, it is entirely calculating, a way of diverting the world’s attention to protect the privacy of his family. But it also turns these songs and more particularly the videos that accompany them into something simultaneously brilliant and self-effacing, a death haunted kabuki, a beautiful dance of disappearance.

And in so doing it reminds us with great eloquence of why Bowie mattered, and why he continues to matter. Not just because he had things left he wanted to say – one only has to look at the video for ‘Lazarus’, the way his shadow emerges from the wardrobe for a final burst of creativity while the real man, his face swathed in bandages, writhes in agony on the bed to see that. But because by turning his death into a work of art he reminds us one last time of the degree to which all our identities are, in some sense, works of art, performances in which death is really only the final transformation.

Yet in a way Bowie’s real genius lay less in his understanding of the liberating power of fantasy but in the music itself, the way it touches us. For while much is often made of his fascination with alienation and decline these qualities are counter-balanced by a deeply human yearning for connection, for the power of it to free us from who we are and make us anew. And it is this we respond to when we listen to songs such as ‘Heroes’ and ‘Starman’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me’, this that makes him speak to so many of us so deeply, this that means his passing leaves us with these mingled feelings of loss and gratitude. For as he promised us in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’, he can help us with the pain, all it takes is to “turn on with me and you’re not alone.”

 

 

Favourite Music 2015

I’m planing to get a post about my favourite books of the year up in the next week or so, but in the meantime I thought I might pull together a quick post about some of the albums I’ve enjoyed this year. As I said when I did this last year, this makes no pretence that it’s comprehensive or objective, instead it’s a selection of things I’ve loved over the past twelve months. Rather than try and make a definitive selection of my absolute favourites I’ve arranged them in (mostly) mostly alphabetical order. Hopefully I’ve also managed to remember enough to save myself from a supplemental post about all the ones I’ve forgotten.

And so, without further ado, here they are …

Asaf Avidan, Gold Shadow
One of my absolute favourite albums of 2015 was by Israeli singer-songwriter Asaf Avidan. I’d not heard of Avidan until I read a review of his latest album, Gold Shadow, but it’s a stunner, anchored by Avidan’s distinctive vocals and  a wonderfully retro yet oddly timeless feel that sounds as if it could have been recorded 50 years ago or last week.

 

Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
Closer to home I loved Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit. People in Australia and the US have already written reams about Barnett and this record, suffice it to say I saw her live last year, and the record is as smart, funny and utterly self-possessed as she was on stage.

 

Blur, The Magic Whip
I also loved Blur’s comeback album, The Magic Whip. It’s not quite Parklike (although what is), but they sound as smart and sharp and tight as they always did, and when I saw them in Sydney earlier in the year they were totally amazing.

 

Leonard Cohen, Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour
Leonard Cohen turned 80 last year, and celebrated by releasing the brilliant Popular Problems. this year he was back with Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, a collection of live versions of lesser-known tracks from his back catalogue plus a couple of new songs, and while it’s not as coherent or focussed as Popular Problems, it’s still a pleasingly rich and occasionally unexpected record that more than holds its own in Cohen’s recent discography, and one I’ve come to like more and more with every new listen.

 

The Decemberists, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
The Decemberists’ What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World is a frontrunner for the title of my favourite album of the year, and certainly one of the ones I’ve listened to the most. I know some long-time fans are a bit dismayed by the more radio-friendly songwriting (as much as that term makes any sense these days) but I love almost every track on it (and who couldn’t love an album that contains the lyric “And me, seventeen and terminally fey”?). The Florasongs EP they released late in the year is great as well.

 

Diane Coffee, Everybody’s a Good Dog
Blissed out Beach Boys and soul perfection from one half of Oxygen. Insanely enjoyable.

 

Destroyer, Poison Season
I’ve never quite connected with The New Pornographers’ albums, but I really enjoyed their front man,  Dan Bejar’s side project, Destroyer’s new one, Poison Season. I remember reading Bejar saying the album was a tribute to Hunky Dory, but to me it sounds like a brilliant art pop reworking of Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen (most obviously on the second track, ‘Dream Lover’).

 

Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Volume 12: The Cutting Edge
What’s there to say? Different interpretations and working versions of many of the songs on three of my favourite albums of all time, many of which are as good or better as the originals. You don’t have to be the sort of Dylan obsessive who’s got the energy to listen to an entire album of outtakes of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ to love this collection, and tracks like the version of ‘Love Minus One’ are worth the price of admission all on their own. Weepingly brilliant.

 

Sharon van Etten, I Don’t Want To Let You Down
I adored van Etten’s last album, Are We There, and although these songs from the same sessions are basically an extension of that album that’s fine by me. Gorgeous, intense, visceral.

 

Colleen Green, I Want To Grow Up
On a first listen Colleen Green’s album sounds like a piece or perfectly pitched grungy guitar punk pop. But dig a little deeper and something darker and more complex begins to appear.

Julia Holter, Have You In My Wilderness
Julia Holter’s previous albums were curious combinations of experimental soundscape and pop melodies, but on her new one she let her pop sensibility come to the fore, and created something really special. I’d be tempted to complain it’s occasionally a bit tasteful (a problem that afflicts a lot of contemporary indie pop IMHO) but on a more careful listen that impression is wiped away by the lyrics, the strength of the songwriting and the complexity of the arrangements. It’s a beautiful record.

 

Elle King, Love Stuff
Elle King’s debut album, Love Stuff, seemed to come out of nowhere when it turned up earlier in the year, but since it was released it’s picked up two Grammy nominations. Imagine a 26 year-old Wanda Jackson and you’ll be pretty much on the money.

 

Joanna Newsom, Divers
There’s a clear line of influence flowing from Kate Bush to Joanna Newsom, but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that Newsom is a genuine original, with a fascinating and increasingly clear aesthetic that’s all her own.

 

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
There’s been a lot of retro-soul and soul-inflected music around this year, perhaps most obviously Leon Bridges’ surprise hit debut, Coming Home. Although I’m always a little uneasy about music that so deliberately (and often slavishly) invokes the past, I liked Coming Home, and in particular the big single, ‘Better Man’, and I also liked Anderson East’s similarly pitch-perfect recreation of the sound of the late 1960s, Delilah. But much as I enjoyed both Bridges’ and East’s albums, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats’ excursion into the same territory in their self-titled debut outshone both in terms of energy and urgency.

 

Alabama Shakes, Sound and Color/Thunderbitch, Thunderbitch
Meanwhile the band that probably did the most to initiate the whole new soul movement, the Alabama Shakes, finally released their much-delayed second album, Sound and Color, and used it to make it clear they had no intention of being pigeonholed by those sorts of labels by delivering a record that pushed outward toward garage rock and funk and even punk. Sound and Color has a lot of great moments, and although Brittany Howard’s voice and charisma mostly overcomes the fact the songs on Sound and Color only occasionally reaches the same heights as those the Shakes’ 2012 album, Boys and Girls, you couldn’t say the same about Howard’s side-project, Thunderbitch, which was released with little fanfare later in the year, and packs more exultant energy and joy into its 33 minutes than the most bands  find in a lifetime (for reasons I don’t understand none of Thunderbitch’s videos seem to be available in Australia but you can listen to a few tracks on their website).

 

Bill Ryder-Jones, West Kirby County Primary
I also loved Bill Ryder-Jones’ gorgeous, damaged West Kirby County Primary, an album that wears its debt to The Velvet Underground on its sleeve, but which also has a vulnerable beauty (and a host of scuzzy pop hooks) all of its own. Another contender for my favourite record of the year.

 

Bruce Springsteen, The Ties That Bind
I’ve only had a chance to listen to it once and watch the documentary (which is terrific, and a reminder of how interesting Springsteen is about the craft of songwriting and painstaking way he imagines and creates his albums) but like Amanda Rose I’m going to dispense with the fantasy I might not love an album made up of a remastered version of one of my all-time Favourite Springsteen albums and 20-odd new tracks from the same sessions might not be one of the best things I’ll hear this year.

 

The Vaccines, English Graffiti
48 minutes of New Wave influenced punk pop perfection. I feel happy every time I hear it. What more is there to say?

 

Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp
I quite enjoyed Katie Crutchfield’s first album as Waxahatchee, American Weekend, but her second, Ivy Tripp, is on a whole other level. Grungy, 1990s influenced guitars meet intimate lyrics and delicate melodies. It’s great stuff.

 

Matthew E. White, Fresh Blood
Matthew E. White’s new album is really just a second helping of the retro-soul-influenced rock and roll that made his first album, Big Inner, so much fun, although it’s richer and more accessible than Big Inner. But what it does have is one of my favourite songs of the year, the sneakily catchy ‘Rock and Roll is Cold’. Put memories of Warren Zevon out of your head, give it a whirl and enjoy.

 

The Beatles, 1+
And finally, I’m not sure whether they really count as an album, but it was difficult not to love the rerelease of the Beatles’ 1, if only for the two discs of beautifully restored videos that accompanied with it. I haven’t had a chance to listen closely to the Giles Martin remasters of the songs themselves (and I’m not sure I wholly approve of that particular exercise) but the videos are an absolute joy.

 

Billions of Eyes

Madly working, but in the meantime here’s a few pieces of music I’ve been enjoying over the past few weeks. First up is a track from Lady Lamb the Beekeeper’s fab new album, After, which is a real grower. Second is ‘Rock & Roll is Cold’, from Matthew E. White’s terrific Fresh Blood.  And finally a track I heard live late last year, and have been waiting to hear again ever since: ‘Depreston’, from Courtney Barnett’s deliciously witty debut album Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit.

 

 

Can’t Buy Me Love: Jonathan Gould and The Beatles

thebeatlesjump

As I mentioned the other day, I’ve just finished Jonathan Gould’s Can’t Buy Me Love, which is one of the best books about the Beatles I’ve ever read (and I’ve read more of them than I probably should have). Not quite as good on the music as Ian MacDonald’s dazzling Revolution in the Head, and a bit less precise in its focus than it might be from time to time (I’m not convinced some of the detours into contemporary history are really necessary) but smart, suitably sceptical about some of their achievements and very usefully engaged with both the individual narratives and the wider picture against which they played out.

One of the problems for any study of the Beatles is the seemingly impenetrable mystery of how it all happened. How did four young men from Liverpool become the most famous people in the world in the space of a few short months, then, once they were famous, go on to dominate popular culture for a decade and produce a string of records that redefined popular music while also acting as one of the catalysts for the immense social change that swept through the western world in the 1960s? As Ruth and Martin on RAM Album Club put it in their hilarious piece about Help the other day (don’t argue, just read it), “The Beatles? It’s the maddest story I’ve ever heard”.

Confronted with this question a lot of writers fall back on handwaving about their extraordinary talent and singular personalities, or mystification about the unique psychology of Lennon and McCartney. But the problem with these sorts of arguments is that they simply beg the question: after all, as Gould’s book makes clear, in the early days they really were just another band (describing their infamous rejection by Decca in 1962, he notes rather dryly that “faced with an oddly named, oddly dressed and openly quarrelsome four-piece group playing a grab bag of outdated material, none of it too well, Decca did what any other well-run record label would have done: after a polite interval, it turned the Beatles down”). And while with the benefit of hindsight it’s possible to see the intersection of qualities that made their records so particular – the harmonies, George Martin’s production and preparedness to experiment, the interplay of Lennon and McCartney’s different sensibilities, the way Lennon’s tough guy exterior made the vulnerability of songs such as ‘Help’ and ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ so affecting, the humour and wordplay – it’s difficult not to allow the story we know to determine the weight we place upon those characteristics.

Gould by contrast offers a fascinatingly nuanced account not just of the social and political preconditions that made their sudden, unprecedented popularity possible, but of the particular personal elements that allowed them to sidestep the sorts of mistakes other acts made, an account that is complemented by a thoughtful and nuanced account of their creative evolution (and subsequent unravelling).

In respect of the former he has a particularly interesting argument about the way the band both internalised and transcended class distinctions, at least in Britain (Americans, less attuned to the complexities of the class system, responded differently), but he also makes clear the shift away from DJ-driven programming to top 40 formats in the aftermath of the payola scandal in the United States allowed the band to achieve national exposure in a way that had not been possible only a year or so earlier.

But he’s also very aware of the importance of Epstein’s unconventional management style, and his insistence the band should seek status over money (apparently Ed Sullivan’s producers were bemused by his simultaneous focus on the band receiving top billing on the show and lack of interest in their fee), and of the practical ways the band’s fame was manufactured, as his anecdote about the promoter of their 1964 concert in Carnegie Hall guaranteeing mayhem in the city by deliberately booking the show for a school holiday attests.

He’s also pleasingly even-handed in both his approbation and his criticism. In contrast to Phillip Norman’s championing of Lennon in Shout! he’s sympathetic to McCartney, both as a composer and a human being, but that admiration doesn’t preclude criticising some of McCartney’s schmaltzier tendencies, In this regard his discussion of the way ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ demonstrates the way McCartney’s “workmanlike tendency to build on past successes had caused him to translate the genuinely charming novelty and subversive parody of ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ into a personal subgenre of songs that had devolved in the two years since Sgt Pepper into a form of musical schtick” is particularly well-judged (his praise of McCartney’s 1981 album, Tug of War, in the final chapter is a bit over the top though). Nor does he pull his punches when describing the band’s excesses and their occasional musical limitations (in one memorable image he says the two sides of Please Please Me, resemble musical bridges between the strong songs at either end and the progressively weaker material at their middles)

It’s also extremely well-written, at least for the most part, both at a line by line level and, more importantly, at an observational level. Describing the press conference when the four of them arrived at Kennedy Airport in 1964 for example he writes that “through it all, the four of them exuded an almost mysterious sense of solidarity and self-possession. They were their own show and their own audience”. Similarly his discussion of the albums is extremely thorough and perceptive, particularly in the book’s middle section (interestingly the book’s best sections relate to the albums from A Hard Day’s Night to Sgt Pepper) and his analysis of the film of A Hard Day’s Night is simply exhilarating. And he’s genuinely fascinating not just on the complex ways in which Dylan influenced the band after their famous meeting at the Delmonico Hotel in New York in August 1964, but on the rather less often acknowledged impact the Beatles and their success had on Dylan. Likewise he is admirably succinct in his analysis of the band’s various psychologies, and interesting about the way they shape the music and, ultimately, the band’s demise.

And then there are the fascinating nuggets of information scattered through the book: apparently the Stones chose the title of Let It Bleed after hearing the album that was originally called Get Back was now going to be called Let It Be, ‘The Continuing Saga of Bungalow Bill’ was Lennon taking the piss out of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding (which he was obsessed with), ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ was at least partly an attack on Frank Sinatra, who had been very critical of the Beatles and used to call people “birds” all the time, and Brian Wilson used to lead the Beach Boys in prayer meetings in the studio to ask God to help them make a better record than Rubber Soul.

So while I think MacDonald’s book is still the gold standard when it comes to discussion of the music (and one of the best books of popular criticism written in the past few decades), the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s mammoth All These Years, Tune In offers the most exhaustive account of the band’s formation, and Pete Doggett’s wonderfully-titled You Never Give Me Your Money gives a better account of the band’s breakup and its aftermath, if you’re after a wide-ranging biography of the band that’s also attuned to the social context, sympathetic to the human side of the story and interesting in its analysis of the work, it’s absolutely the one I’d recommend.

Questions, questions, questions. Also some music.

I’m going to put together a roundup of reviews and articles about Clade soon, but in the meantime I’ve done a pair of Q&As you might like to check out. The first was for Penguin, and you can read it on their website; the other was for the fabulous Angela Slatter’s blog.

And while it’s not about the book, I’ve also just done a little thing for Zena Shapter about the music I’ve been enjoying recently. You can read the whole thing over on Zena’s blog, but because I wrote it a couple of weeks ago I didn’t include two things I’ve been loving in the past little while. The first is Israeli singer-songwriter Asaf Avidan’s fabulous album, Gold Shadow, which rather like Angel Olsen’s excellent Burn Your Fire For No Witness, looks back to the 1960s and beyond for a series of sounds and production techniques which manage to sound both retro and completely contemporary. And the other is The Beatles’ fourth album, Beatles For Sale, a record I was convinced to go back to by Jonathan Gould’s enthusiastic discussion of it in his biography of the Fab Four, Can’t Buy Me Love (which I’m planning to write something about on the weekend). For various reasons I’d come to accept the line that it’s an album born of exhaustion and creative burnout, a trough between the high points of A Hard Day’s Night and Help, but having listened to it again I’ve realised it’s actually much more interesting than I’d given it credit for, not just because original songs like ‘No Reply’ are so terrific, but because the choice of covers implies a fascinating conversation with their various influences and antecedents (and also, I suspect, prefigure the engagement with music hall and other, older forms on albums like Sgt Pepper).

A Little Music for the Weekend …

Three things that have been on high rotation in my life lately. First up Mary Timony (formerly of Helium and Wild Flag)’s new band Ex Hex’s terrific debut, Rips, the second Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas’ similarly brilliant debut, Secret Evil. And finally The Felice Brothers’ light as air and completely delightful new album, Favourite Waitress. All fantastic, all very worth a few minutes of your valuable time.