Tag Archives: albums

Wednesday’s listening

I spent yesterday on the train to London, in a darkened room in London with lots of strangers, looking for a record shop in London, and then on a train back from London, so regular listening patterns, whatever they are, were out of the window.

Unsurprisingly it wasn’t an ad hoc trip, so I had some time for planning. Consequently, fearing 3G eating my iPhone’s battery life as I tweeted through the day (I can’t help it, it’s like crack to me), I loaded some music onto the iPad, which has never really been used as a music-playing-device before (more often it facilitates listening via bigger, better devices, by allowing us to multi-task while on the sofa in front of the proper hi-fi). I just dumped the most recently added albums in our iTunes library on their, which are all 2011 releases – Tomboy, Mountain Goats, PJ Harvey, Nicolas Jaar, Juliana Barwick, King Creosote and Jon Hopkins, Radiohead, and an Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All playlist someone sent me, plus the two recent Patrick Wolf singles.

My train didn’t leave till 10am, so I put Tomboy on via the iPod and Zeppelin dock while I pottered around, made breakfast, updated the list of people taking part in this week, made sandwiches for my wife and myself for lunch, packed my back, checked my itinerary, updated our Oyster Card, etc etc. I wasn’t exactly paying attention – in fact I was wandering from room-to-room – but I doubt Panda Bear would mind; there’s so much reverb on Tomboy, so much repetition, that it’s difficult to touch, to focus on. This is no bad thing; in fact it’s lovely.

Once ensconced on the train I read Mark Richardson’s book on Zaireeka. Mark and I know each other very vaguely via the web; we’ve got roughly similar taste and hang out in some of the same spaces. He saw me tweet about Devon Record Club the other week, and replied saying it sounded like great fun, and could he send me a copy of his book to read. Who turns down a free book?

I’ve got Zaireeka and have organized playbacks of it on about three occasions, but I’m not an enormous Flaming Lips fan (even though they provided a couple of the best live music experiences of my life), so hadn’t really been interested in reading the book. I actually read very little music writing as a general rule, as very little of it speaks to me. I’d rather write/communicate about music, via forums, via Twitter, via this blog, than read Lester Bangs or Robert Christgau or Paul Morley (though I do own books by the first and last of those people, and the middle one put something I wrote in a book he edited once).

Mark’s book isn’t just about the Flaming Lips, though; the nature of Zaireeka, and Mark’s sensibilities regarding music, mean that a big chunk of the book is really about how we listen, and the history of communal listening, and individual listening, and headphones, and the Sony Walkman, and public transport, and how format and technology influences consumption. The first six weeks of my degree, way back when, were very heavy on the Marxist cultural theory, and I’d chosen my degree, as I said to someone the other day, at least in (subconscious) part, because I hoped it would make me a better music writer. I don’t know whether those six weeks shaped my current sensibilities or whether my sensibilities at that time matched what we were being taught and consequently grew together, but consumption, technology, production, base and superstructure, the economics of culture influencing the form of culture, the practicalities and utilities of listening, of living, are all things that fascinate me. I’ve never wanted to be in a band or make music (aside from one 2-hour stretch the other evening when I downloaded GarageBand onto the iPad, which quickly faded); I’ve always just wanted to understand better what music is for, and how it does what it does, and how and why we use it, and love it so much.

Mark’s book on Zaireeka is one of only three books about music that have ever made me feel elated to identify with the thoughts within. The other two are The Manual by The KLF, and Music: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Cook. Lester Bangs, Paul Morley, etc etc, all that romantic stuff, that postmodern stuff, it can go to hell. These three books, exploding, in simple terms and brief formats, how music works (Cook), how the music business works (or worked: The KLF), and how we use music (Richardson), moved me emotionally far more than reams of emotive prose about The Velvet Underground. All three of them made my eyes well up a little. Maybe that’s weird.

So what did I actually listen to? On the journey to London I listened to the Panda Bear album again, as I read, and then the Nicolas Jaar, still reading. On the way back I listened to Panda Bear for a third time of the day, and then All Eternals Deck by The Mountain Goats, which I’ve been asked to review for someone, and then I listened to the first 6 tracks of Let England Shake. It struck me during the PJ Harvey record that the three albums I listened to yesterday were on a continuum; at one end is John Darnielle, organic instruments and voices, drums, guitars, bass, piano, clear songs, clear melodies, words and emotions, a band-playing-live-in-a-room sound. At the other end is Panda Bear, floating in a reverberating haze, repeating beatifically, semi-incoherent, intangible. And in the middle is PJ, her songs as direct as John’s but hidden behind mist.

On the way home I tried to write about Source Code on the iPad, but found the train’s motion too much to overcome, and ceased. I typed the following over the course of listening to Tomboy:

“Sod writing. Let’s just listen and watch the world go by as dusk encroaches.

Can’t leave my bloody phone alone. Reminded of baudrillard thing about a life of screens. Screens screens everywhere.

Scheherazade made me think of infinite expanding shared subconsciousness. Because that’s what pop music is for.”

I got home circa 10pm and watched some TV before I went to bed.

Tuesday’s listening

A cup of sugary Lady Grey half-quaffed and finally I can sit down and write. It’s been a long day; my first back at work since being unwell over the weekend, and I spent much of it coordinating a photoshoot. This is usually a pleasure, as the guy we use is great and a pleasure to work with, and his capable assistant today was equally good to talk to, but, frankly, my arse hurts and I get tired easily. Though nowhere near as much as was the case on Saturday.

So, music. Working in the office this morning, and out and about across campus this afternoon, I listened to nothing but the songs that flitted through my brain until 6:30pm. The songs that ran through my brain were, if you’re interested, the second track (and first song) from the King Creosote and Jon Hopkins record, and Perfect Day by Lou Reed. The former was in my head for no discernable reason other than the fact that I’ve played the album a lot lately. The latter is in my head because, when I picked the iPod off its dock this morning in order to stuff it full of Nicolas Jaar and Panda Bear and Mountain Goats, the algorithm that chooses the random cover art on the display had chosen Transformer. And thus a synapse was fired, and pretty much the whole damn song had swung through my head without me thinking about. Annoyingly it was a hybridised version which included the woman from M People hollering.

The first thing I chose to listen to myself was Nicolas Jaar, once again, via my iPhone as I walked the final stretch home from work; I only got to listen to about ten minutes, so only got to about the start of track four.

The second thing I listened to was the first six tracks of Kill The Moonlight by Spoon, which I stuck in the car CD player as I drove out to Sainsbury’s to buy tomatoes and fruit and bread rolls. Yes, I know tomatoes are fruit, which makes the first part of that last sentence tautological, but you know what I mean. I had half a dozen tomatoes, roasted with a sniff of lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, and salt & pepper, for my tea.

I am home alone. My wife is out with some work colleagues at a cocktail making class. As I waited for the tomatoes to cook, and then as I ate them, and browsed the internet for people’s updates about this project, I listened to Tomboy by Panda Bear again, this time via the iPod dock, which is a big Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin, and thus when given some welly, is more like listening via a proper hi-fi than a wee desktop thing. I tweeted about listening to it.

Now, I am in the backroom, where I spent most of Monday and where we have our “second” hi-fi, and I am listening to The Middle of Nowhere by Orbital. I can remember my very first listen to this. I bought it in Woolworths in Teignmouth, which is where I also bought In Sides. I first listened to The Middle of Nowhere at my friend Ben’s house in Teignmouth, on his dad’s “big stereo”, which I know now, some 13 years later, to have been a serious hi-fi with serious, floorstanding speakers. I was… a little seduced… by the thump of the bass drum and the impact of the brass on the opening track the first time I heard it. Recently, I looked at what houses were on the market approximately in a budget we could afford in Teignmouth, and I saw a house on the same road as Ben’s was, and I noticed that there was a serious hi-fi, with serious floorstanding speakers, and I wondered if it was Ben’s house. Ben’s been in Leeds for a decade or more now, and I don’t think I’ve seen him more than once, if at all, in all that time.

But I don’t normally use music as emotional batteries, as a repository, as a reminder.

Or do I?

Which is what this “project” is all about, really. What do we use music for? What does it do to us? There is no right or wrong answer. Dancing, crying, passing the time, distracting, filling space, soundtracking the washing-up, making a journey more bearable or enjoyable, helping us to remember, helping us to forget: these are all valid purposes. I said once (and then twice, and three times, and many, many more times) some time ago that a song doesn’t have to mean something, a song is something. We can and do assign and glean our own meanings, and our own uses.

If i listen to anything else, I’ll edit it into this post later.

Edit. Orbital finished, and I went next door to get the King Creosote and John Hopkins CD, only to realise that it was in the room I’d just left; en route I spied Let England Shake by PJ Harvey, and decided to put that on instead, anyway.

Top ten albums I reviewed for Stylus

To celebrate the fact that the Stylus archive is back in action, meaning that everything I ever wrote there is now visible once more, I’ve decided to do a quick top ten. The title of this post may have been a clue.

Note that these are NOT what I consider to be my “top ten reviews”; they’re just the top ten records, which I reviewed while writing for Stylus, that I still really love, years on.

Flicking through the list of reviews I wrote, I am more than a little perturbed that Derek bloody Miller managed to snag reviews of my favourite records by certain bands. So where I reviewed early records by Manitoba/Caribou and Patrick Wolf, say, Derek reviewed the album by each that I love the most. The bastard.

In no particular order, then…

The Necks – Drive By
Possibly the record from my time at Stylus that I have played the most.

Kate Bush – Aerial
This is coming up for six years old now; as testament to how fast the (music) world moves now, in the internet age, that doesn’t seem like very long – that she may have a new record out later this year is surprisingly quick.

Electrelane – No Shouts No Calls
My favourite individual Electrelane songs exist elsewhere, perhaps (The Valleys, I Want To Be The President), but this album is their strongest set of songs. They’re back together and I’m psyched.

Four Tet – Rounds
I reviewed this and Manitoba’s breakthrough Up In Flames in short order in 2003, dropped lots of cultural studies terminology, and gained a reputation as an intellectual electronic music writer. Which was complete nonsense. I’ve still no idea what I’m talking about.

LCD Soundsystem – The Sound Of Silver
Those two peaks still astound; the whole holds up.

Sly And The Family Stone – Stand!
Cheating perhaps, as this is a remaster of an undisputed classic, but, perusing what I reviewed, I covered very few modern classics – often times I ended up stunt-reviewing things we needed to cover while others got to praise the true gems.

CAN – Monster Movie
Likewise this; I think CAN’s most underrated record, perhaps because, without Damo and with Malcolm, it’s their most atypical. Mary Mary So Contrary, though, is still an absolute dream.

Bark Psychosis – ///Codename:Dustsucker
I should probably stop talking and writing about this. I don’t listen to it anywhere near as often as you might think based on this blog.

Acoustic Ladyland – Skinny Grin
It was surprising how many of the albums I was close to including in this list were jazz records – Polar Bear, e.s.t., Dave Douglas – but this one perhaps, due to its status as, in a few minds, a modern-day, avant-garde fusion masterpiece, just pips it.

Roots Manuva – Awfully Deep
I’ve not listened to this in an age, but on seeing it in the list of my archive I felt compelled to squeeze it in here. I’ll dig it out over the weekend.

And, just for the record, the worst…

Is the album dead?

People keep asking this question lately, or so it seems. Again. “Is rock dead?” is another one currently en vogue. Again. I’m assuming it’s because we’re still, amazingly, in January and entertainment / music writers have got bugger-all else to write about besides the annual whinge over the BBC Sound of 2011 list.

No, the album isn’t dead. In fact, Sunday-night listening clubs where people gather together to listen to classic 70s rock on vinyl via massive speakers the way God intended are attracting attention in the press. Rock may be absent from the singles charts but it’s alive and kicking, same as ever, in stadiums and 45-minute cohesive artistic statements pressed into vinyl grooves or burnt in binary code into tiny plastic and aluminium sandwiches. Rock loves albums, albums love rock.

Of course every action must have an equal and opposite reaction, and the virtual, 21st century, poptimist, internet-native version of hairy blokes listening to Led Zeppelin II in the back rooms of nightclubs is the online listening room, where you login to an old-fashioned (ha!) chatroom, add an MP3 from your harddrive to the room’s playlist, and share it over the optical-cable ether and whatever crappy laptop speakers they’re listening on with the other occupants. A natural evolution, I guess, or perhaps some kind of unholy union, from regular chartrooms and such social music services as last.fm and Spotify.

Are these two phenomena related, perhaps? A move back towards a social consumption of music after the best part of a decade of white earbuds blocking out as much of the outside world as possible? Perhaps. Certainly I’ve been talking with a friend about setting up some kind of record club, where we gather every few weeks to play each other records, concentrate on them, talk about them, expose each other to stuff outside our usual comfort zones. My wife and I share music to an extent but we know each other and our respective tastes so well, and there are so many other things in our lives together, from cats to cooking to gas bills to whatever, that it sometimes seems impossible to sit and share some music in that kind of indulgent way. Even tonight, while she’s away on work and I’m sitting on the sofa writing this post on the iPad and listening to old Orbital albums, I’m not being as indulgent with my listening as I could be. As immersive. I’m writing. I chose something familiar and without vocals deliberately to act as sensual backdrop to another activity.

But anyway, going back to my thread a little, as much as I love albums, and I do, a lot, albums do not always equal rock, not for me. Not for many, I suspect. My two favourites from 2010 were ostensibly dance records, and the last week has seen me gorging on jazz long players. Nor are albums the only way I consume music; a random retweet of something Rio Ferdinand, of all people, posted on Twitter today inspired me to buy a single song as an MP3 (or M4A, if we’re being technical) from iTunes. I’ve spent early mornings for the last week listening to a playlist of singles from the 1990s, getting friends to send me individual tracks by artists I don’t own albums or physical singles by to flesh-out the list a little. I spent Christmas with a giant playlist of singles. I maintain a massive playlist of b-sides, individual songs I love that have almost no context at all. Sometimes, and get the freaky weirdness and audacity of this, I put an actual CD single in the Rega and just play ONE SONG before changing it for another CD. I imagine that I am very far from rare amongst music fans in loving both albums and individual songs.

Imagine your own pithy closing line about the album being alive and well and living in the front bedroom.