Tag Archives: records

Records of 2014

I don’t normally like writing summaries of what’s been out so far this year until at least the summer, but January and February have been embarrassingly good, and I’m not really reviewing records for anywhere at the moment (increasingly I can’t see the point in writing reviews, for various reasons), but I still feel like there are various things I want to say about some of the things I’ve heard. So I will.

(And there are still records I fully expect to be great due in the next couple of weeks; Liars, Hauschka.)

Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything
Thinking of re-doing my iTunes genre tags, because genre tags are so vague as to be essentially useless and irrelevant. I’d put Elbow down as ‘Real ale prog’ these days. Take that as a pejorative, I think. The opening song here consists of seven minutes of acoustic guitar and mumbling. I don’t remember a beat at all. I don’t remember much, actually. I’m not sure why I bought it; some sense of loyalty to the band they were for their first couple of records, some hope that one day they’ll be really awesome again.

Because Elbow have ascended to a kind of tasteful stateliness over their last three albums, a middle-aged comfort and mild melancholy that’s seemingly devoid of edge and excitement. This is fine, if you like. Emotional northern men. We should have seen it coming from the second side of Leaders of the Free World. The creepy, creeping, occasionally cacophonous disquietude of the first two albums has almost entirely dissolved. I’m kind of happy for them that this is the case (that they’re not angry / distressed / etc anymore), but it’s taken a great deal of the tension and release out of their music, and that tension and release was a key part of why I loved them.

All that said, “Fly Boy Blue / Lunette” is pretty wonderful (that brass! that bass!) and maybe other bits of this record will reveal themselves unto me over time. I thought the same about the last one, though, and it didn’t.

Get the Blessing – Lope / Antilope
Bristol jazz; I have the debut album by these guys (when they were called The Blessing, before legal nonsense forced a prefix) and enjoyed it a lot, so I bought this, which is about their fourth. I’ve not been disappointed; it’s really good. I don’t know what to write about jazz; it’s kind of a default listening choice for when I just want to listen to something musical and semi-exciting and intricate and groovy (which is a lot of the time) but don’t want (mostly) to get really emotionally involved. This is rocky – it has a back beat (albeit and intricate one) most of the time – and it shouldn’t scare anyone off. There’s no real honking. It’s not free. It’s just tunes. Get over it. Get up with it.

The Notwist – Close to the Glass
Back to electronics; in fact, way deeper into electronics than before, in some ways. After the rather enervated last album (which was still beautiful, albeit in a very subdued way), there are some proper pop moments here (“Kong”), and far more energy, but still shot through with a sense of melancholy that comes from the linguistic distance of the lyrics and their delivery (ie because the singer’s German). They cover a lot of ground here – as well as being more deeply electronic, some tracks are more overtly rock, too; “Seven Hour Drive” is a pure My Bloody Valentine tribute, layers of (digital?) distortion and scree with melody painted through them. I wasn’t expecting much, six years on, but this has been a really, really pleasant surprise, especially given that it came out the same day as Neneh, Wild Beasts, and St. Vincent, and I expected this to be the runt of the litter.

Wild Beasts – Present Tense
There’s been lots of talk about this being brave and a change and a statement from various people – including the band themselves – and suggestion that they didn’t just want to produce Smother all over again (not that there’d be much wrong with that, as Smother is excellent, and moreish, and a grower). Which is fair enough; change is a good thing. Except that, to my ears, off half-a-dozen plays or more, this does, in many ways, just sound like… if not a repeat, than a logical progression and minor evolution, rather than a radical break or a revolution, from Smother. Which is also fine. Smother with synths, if you will. The sauciness is slightly more domesticated, perhaps.

There is not enough whooping, not enough drama, not enough noise, I’m tempted to think at times. It’s still beautiful and compelling, and they’re still wonderful, I’d just prefer it if, after the deeper one sings “the destroyer of worlds” at the centre of the album, the synths actually did rend and destroy, with a dramatic dynamic leap and edges of chaos, rather than just oscillate beautifully once again, albeit slightly ominously. I have absolute confidence that this will unfurl layer upon layer of sound and tune and interpretation over the next 12 months and beyond; I’d just prefer it if they’d taken some of the roiling chaos of latter day Talk Talk as well as the subtlety. (I’ve said it before and will again; everyone leaves out the chaos.)

Neneh Cherry – Blank Project
Some context regarding creation: Neneh wrote the songs for this, and then sent the vocals – with nothing else at all – to Rocketnumbernine, who wrote the music around it. Kieron Hebden has been eager to explain via Twitter that he pretty much just pressed ‘record’, rather than ‘producing’ it in the way that, say, Timbaland might produce a Justin Timberlake record, despite people’s assumptions. Anyway, this is fabulous; vocals, drums, and synthesizers, with a really light, improvisational feel. Rocketnumbernine are ostensibly a jazz duo, in some ways, and given Hebden and Cherry’s involvement this spontaneity makes perfect sense. Wonderfully open sound, some great hooks, and just amazingly rewarding to listen to; the lyrics are darker than you might think, with several songs dealing quite bluntly with depression, and whilst Neneh sometimes relies on borderline cliché phrases, that fits the aesthetic perfectly. Brilliant.

Warpaint – Warpaint
I was baffled by a handful of reviews of this (part of the reason I can’t see much point in writing reviews – people do just hear things differently) which complained at a lack of hooks and tunes, talked about it meandering and grooving aimlessly in pejorative terms. Who the hell comes to Warpaint looking for a soaring chorus and a churning middle eight? Go to the Embrace album for that. Warpaint’s entire raison d’être is meandering, aimless grooves and subtle, barely-perceptible hooks; they’re brilliant at it. They’re like really early Verve stripped of Ashcroft’s ego and the squalling, post-shoegaze guitars.

Anyway, we saw them live a few weeks ago and I vaguely expected them to go full-on Grateful Dead, jamming everything out into 10-minute spectral hazes, but actually they played stuff incredibly tightly, almost exactly as it is on the albums. Which could seem pointless, if the sheer volume and physical weight of sound that live PAs are capable of didn’t make their groove an awesome experience. It also made me reconsider how I’ve got them mentally filed; they’re clearly not quite the ‘jam’ band I thought, and now I get the idea that their songs are highly taut, composed entities.

Polar Bear – In Each and Every One
More jazz; less rock-influenced and more in thrall to dance music, I guess, and minimalism. This is almost the opposite of the Melt Yourself Down record from last year (they share some personnel); where that was frenetic and chaotic and taut and hook-driven and rocky, this is loose and strung-out and sparse. I find it fascinating. Some of it gets close to drone, almost, and there’s a lot of playing around with space and rhythm. And, because it’s Polar Bear, there are tunes and melodies coming out of its ears even so. Marvellous.

Planningtorock – All Love’s Legal
I need more time with this; it seems a little one-dimensional in terms of tune and sonics compared to Shaking The Habitual, to which it is clearly related, although “Let’s Talk About Gender Baby” perhaps does everything that album tried in 80-odd minutes in just under four and a half.

East India Youth – Total Strife Forever
Fisher Price electronica. My first krautrock record; it tries a little bit of everything, settling on not quite anything. And a really bad, weird pun for a title. This is perfectly fine, but I’m not getting the hype, quite. The songy-songs are definitely better than the tracky-tracks, as it were; his reach exceeds his grasp as far as technical skills go thus far, but he has an ear for a tune. I’m intrigued to watch him develop.

St. Vincent – St. Vincent
All hook and no tune? Possibly, but that’s harsh. Certainly more direct and poppy than Strange Mercy, but I fear it won’t be as long-term rewarding as Actor, which was a fabulous grower. But time will tell. And right now, the weird, arty hooks and strange turns and over-processed percussion and weird, pseudo-lo-fi scratchy guitar sound of this are massively beguiling, because Annie Clark is a disgustingly talented musician, and listening to disgustingly talented people make music is great.

Albums of 2011

It’s December again, miraculously, so I’ve taken all the released-this-year CDs that Em and I have bought, put them in a couple of piles, and taken a photograph of them. It seems to be becoming a tradition. You can click on the photo to see a larger version and read all of the spines, if you like.

Anyway, ten is a nice number, and words about records are good, so here are words about my ten (arbitrary) favourite records of the year, in reverse order, because, y’know, tension…

10. Wilco – The Whole Love
There can, and often does, come a time when you have the sad realization that you don’t so much love a band, as love a small part of a band. In my case, with Wilco, I love I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, and Reservations, and Spiders (Kidsmoke), and Company In Your Back, and At Least That’s What You Said, and Misunderstood, and I Can’t Stand It, and Poor Places, and Sunken Treasure… but there are whole big chunks of them that I’m not bothered about, even if there’s very little (maybe nothing) that I dislike. So I pretty much ignored Wilco (The Album), having been a little nonplussed by the smooth, mature proficiency of Sky Blue Sky. And I was trepidatious about The Whole Love, despite talk about it being a (slight) return to more experimental textures. In truth, I’m staggered by the two bookends, and especially Art Of Almost (when Cline and Kotche let rip for the last two or three minutes!), and could (almost) take or leave the rest of the album. But I’ll take it; the whole thing sounds stunning, and there’s something intrinsically pleasurable about watching (or listening to) human beings doing something they’re very good at; even when the songs are traditional and/or predictable, there’s always a skill, dexterity, and panache to the playing here that is impressive. And on top of that, songs like I Might and the title track are good pop/rock tunes in their own right, even if tracks like Capitol City veer a little too far into pleasantly inconsequential Beatles homage.

9. Walls – Coracle
I reviewed this for The Quietus; it’s very good. The opening track, Into Our Midst, rivals Art Of Almost as my favourite opener of the year. Lots of records tried something similar this year – The Field, Blanck Mass, Tim Hecker, Robag Wruhme and more all had at least something in common at some level – but Walls seemed to do it best.

8. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
We saw Laura Marling perform at Exeter cathedral a month and a bit ago; I’d say that her voice was possessed of a surprising power in a live context, except that it wasn’t surprising. Her debut now sounds callow and naïve, and even last year’s excellent I Speak Because I Can, which I adored, has paled a little in relief; A Creature I Don’t Know adds a sensuality and tension to her tunefulness and musicianship which provides a new dimension. On The Beast, the album’s central, emotionally unhinged, most electrifying moment, Marling channels something of the dark magic that crept into Mojo Pin and Lover, You Should’ve Come Over by Jeff Buckley. I look forward greatly to watching her career develop even further.

7. tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
I was initially a little nonplussed by this much-hyped record when Tom played it at Devon Record Club; it seemed at first to be a clattering mess. But at some point in autumn it opened up to me, and clicked neatly into place; the energy and chaos of the opening trio, clattering hooks and beats and amazing, corrupted and pure voices, and the beautiful swoons and twists of Powa, still imbued with a passion and strength. Garbus is an intriguing musician and a great, soulful singer.

6. Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise
A continuous, sensuous, aesthetic pleasure, Jaar’s debut isn’t quite the minimal house odyssey some people wanted, but it is immaculately constructed, captivating and unusual, a strange nowhere land between techno and jazz and minimal and Germany and South American and east and west. I love it, and I can’t wait to watch him grow.

5. Destroyer – Kaputt
My first dalliance with Dan Bejar has impressed me enough to make me go back and investigate Rubies, Your Blues, and Trouble In Dreams; I like them all, especially Rubies, but Kaputt has something else going for it. Maybe it’s the aesthetic of smooth, 80s sophistication, the tight, highly held guitars, the saxophones and synthesizers. Or maybe it’s the strange nostalgia for other countries and other cultures. Bejar seems to do something different with every album – Bowie pastiche, bizarre orchestral midi-dreams, shoegaze overtones – so I doubt the aesthetic adopted on Kaputt will be continued into whatever he does next, but right now both Em and I are finding moments of this buzzing through our heads between plays.

4. Patrick Wolf – Lupercalia
I reviewed this for The Quietus too. It accompanied us on car journeys throughout the summer, something Patrick’s not done since The Magic Position. The first four tracks are almost too much to bear, too ebullient, too happy, too in love, but the album fulcrums on Time Of My Life, which might just be Patrick’s best pop song yet, and which tilts the emotions out of fairytale happily-ever-after into something much more prosaic and, therefore, more moving and real. And the tunes! Bermondsey Street! House! The Falcons! Together! I want Patrick to make an album of full-on German techno next.

3. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Annie Clark’s previous effort ended up being my accidental favourite album of 2009, a long-burning grower that crept up on me (and Emma, too) over months and months, intriguing and beguiling us. So there were high expectations for Strange Mercy, especially when she let Surgeon into the world as a teaser. In truth, the album didn’t strike me straight away, but I kind of wasn’t expecting it to after Actor, and I’m glad it didn’t. We saw Annie live last month, and I wrote the following:
“Strange Mercy has a disorienting drama, a never-ending tension in some songs that builds and builds and frustrates by never quite climaxing, at least not in the way you might expect. It’s almost like jazz – you expect a refrain to develop or repeat in a certain way, and it doesn’t; you expect an introduction to end, but it continues, and reveals itself to be an entire verse (such as a verse is) rather than a mere prologue; you’re left waiting for the pattern to alter, for musical satiation, and you’re left without it, like unending, climaxless foreplay. This might be enough to drive some mad. Live the new songs fitted pretty seamlessly with the handful of older ones – a few from Actor, very little from Marry Me (a splendid Your Lips Are Red) – even though on record they are perhaps a little more disjointed, more awkward, more complex. She’s a very special musician. Some seemed to think that Strange Mercy would be her breakthrough record; I don’t think she’ll ever “break through” in that mainstream-crossover audience way. She’s too complicated, too dreamlike, too dangerous, perhaps. I feel like the artifice of her music – the unusual, varied guitar tones, synth washes, unreal-sounding drums – are manifestations of her attempting to create the music she hears inside her own head. I suspect the inside of her head is an interesting place. Twice onstage she swore in songs, adding the word “fucking” to a lyric where it doesn’t appear on record, and the affect was a little frightening, a real example of a curse word holding emotional power.”

2. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
I wrote this, and also this, and also this about PJ Harvey’s latest album, which is taking plaudits left, right, and centre this year, as well as various tweets, messageboard posts, and snippets in blog posts about other things. So I’m not sure I can write anymore, except to say that it’s wonderful, and poetic, and enticing, and moving, and a massive, massive accomplishment.

1. Wild Beasts – Smother

Likewise I waxed extremely lyrical about Wild Beasts’ third album back in May; it’s stayed near the top of my pile, where it’s accessible, because it needs to be, because I play it often, ever since. It, and its b-sides (especially the marvelous Thankless Thing), and Two Dancers, have been in the car, on the iPod, on the hi-fi, more often than any other records over the last 12 months, even Polly’s. Between These New Puritans last year and Wild Beasts this year I now feel like there are bands of boys with guitars (as opposed to bands of men with guitars, or lone women with guitars, or bands of women with guitars, or lone men with computers) who I care about, who I can invest in, who I want to go and see play live, and wear t-shirts adorned with their name. Smother is a subtle, creeping, emotionally and sexually tense and intense affair, passionate and impassioned at the same time as being incredibly controlled and nuanced. It’s my favorite album of the year.

Albums of 2011 (so far)

So it’s about that time that I wax lyrical about the records I’ve bought, listened to, and enjoyed so far this year, as much to keep my mind clear with what I think of things as for the sake of spreading a little listening love around. So here goes.

Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys!
I’m unsure what I think of this, and indeed, by extension, Elbow, in 2011. On a phenomenological level, the act of listening to this is pleasurable; it sounds gorgeous. But I never do want to listen to it. I suspect, partly, that there’s a sense of darkness, of bitterness, of spite, that’s been eroded from Elbow’s music slowly since their debut, and I need that contrast to their wide-open humanism in order to give contrast, subtlety, and emotional drama. It’s lovely, like the last album, and I’m glad people like it, and I admire it, but I don’t love it.

British Sea Power – Valhalla Dancehall
I want to like this more; I’m not sure why I don’t. Here’s what I said back when it came out.

King Creosote & Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine
I listened to this very intensely, and with great frequency, during darker evenings. I have no doubt I’ll pull it out again when the nights draw back in; it’s that kind of record.

LCD Soundsystem – The London Sessions
A clandestine ‘greatest hits’, perhaps; a posthumous wave to appreciative fans. I dearly wish I’d seen them live. I’m pretty sure I’d got guest-listed for a Bristol gig in 2007, but circumstances changed and we couldn’t go.

Primal Scream – Screamadelica (Remastered)
I love this as much as ever; I thought I didn’t / couldn’t.

Ron Sexsmith – Long Player Late Bloomer
The melodies are delicious, but the arrangements are a little too slick for my tastes. I must investigate his early stuff soon, in the hope that his compositional gift hasn’t changed, and that he started out more minimal.

Josh T Pearson – Last Of The Country Gentlemen
I’ve only listened to this once and only vaguely; it made me feel like a voyeur, and I don’t want to be made to hear the feelings contained within songs called Honeymoon’s Great: Wish You Were Her. But Pearson is such a talented that I know I’ll come around eventually. It’s only art.

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
This is magnificent. Strangely, Americans I know seem not to get it as much as Brits.

Joan As Police Woman – The Deep Field
Ostensibly Emma’s (she loves Joan), but I like this a lot too; it’s an r’n’b album, essentially, but the kind of r’n’b that’s played live in a room, with long, crunchy, richly-textured guitar lines. A little bit Maxwell, a little bit… Second Coming by The Stone Roses, almost. Modern electric blues I guess (not Griff Rhys Jones stuff).

Iron And Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
I like this a lot when I listen to it, but I don’t remember to listen to it quite enough (possibly because the opening track is maybe my least favourite); it feels like a journey through the whole of American popular music, from country to soul to jazz to indie rock and back again. The tunes deserve more attention.

The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
I’d hate to repeat myself, so just read this.

Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
Likewise.

Tyler The Creator – Goblin
Above and beyond anything else, this is too long; 15 tracks lasting 73 minutes is just far too much to take in, and it becomes boring. In fact, it starts boring; the opening track is a 7-minute “woe is me” monologue with a pretty tepid backing track. Beyond that… sonically, Goblin is Fisher Price El-P / Def Jux, a kind of lo-fi, schoolroom version of The Cold Vein without the sci-fi vision. It’s not got the concision, incision, or, and this is crucial, hooks of Dizzee Rascal, for instance, who was perhaps the last rapper this youthful, energetic, and (almost) controversial to get so many words typed about him.

And as for the controversy… lyrically, Goblin is the Aristocrats joke, but without a punch line. “I’m awesome / and I fuck dolphins” is absurd enough to elicit a laugh; “I raped a pregnant bitch and told my friends I had a threesome” is reaching so far for controversy as to cause a nasal snort as you try and decide whether laughing at is as bad as laughing with. To my mind the only things it’s not acceptable to make jokes about are rape, and infant death; the latter is what turned me off Chris Morris’ Jam TV program a decade ago.

The Lex nailed many of my feelings regarding Odd Future Wolf Gang in his blog for The Guardian; Tyler may be gifted (I’ve not listened enough to appreciate his talent for internal rhymes or his flow yet), but he’s not transgressive. He’s just very, very young, and trying very, very hard. But so were the Beastie Boys, and they grew up from snotty misogynists into something far more palatable, without losing their musical verve along the way. Because there is something somehow compelling about kids yelling “kill people / burn shit / fuck school” and “golf wang!”

Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
I’ve listened to this about four times, most of them in the car while driving to the airport. My initial impression is that it fits, sonically and in mood, almost exactly halfway between Check Your Head and Hello Nasty. This is where Beastie Boys ought to sit in 2011, as far as I’m concerned. The tunes, hooks, noises, beats, etc, are far more catchy and enjoyable than Tyler.

Radiohead – The King Of Limbs
People bitching about the brevity of this annoy me; it’s longer, and with far less songs, than Revolver. I like it; I really like about half of it. They seem, to my ears, to have finally interpolated the influences they’ve been wrestling with for the last decade. It’s not got the tunes or approachability of In Rainbows, or the impact of Kid A, but it’ll do nicely.

Panda Bear – Tomboy
I pretty much standby what I wrote a few weeks ago; I like this a lot. It doesn’t have the absolute peak, sublime moments of Person Pitch, but it’s more consistent, more structured.

Wild Beasts – Smother
I’m only a few listens into this, and none of them at volume of with intensity, but I’m enjoying it immensely; Anthony Hegarty and Guy Garvey / Paul Heaton fronting a subdued, sensual, 21st century Tears For Fears; which is not surprising given the Talk Talk name-drops made in the run up to its release. Could perhaps do with a little more energy, a little more chaos, a little bit of loss of control

Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise
This might be the album I’ve played the most (proportionally to the time I’ve had it for) this year; there’s a mix of electronic textures, live instruments, technoness, jazziness, etc etc, that is just bliss to my ears; vatic enough to stand calmly in the room and be ignored if needs be, but gorgeous enough to entwine around you and take your full attention if you want.

There’s a lot of white spines this year, so far.

Record Store Day

Only two of the new records we’ve bought this year weren’t purchased in a real, physical shop; Nicolas Jaar and Iron and Wine. The latter could have been bought in our local HMV, and I’m not sure why it wasn’t, but Jaar was sadly nowhere to be seen in Exeter’s emporiums. I like the feeling of coming home from town with a new record; I have for years.

There’s been a lot of guff written and talked about Record Store Day, not least by Rick Martin from the NME, who wants to be rid of the constraints of physical possessions. Well, those that have music on them, at any rate. (iPods and hard drives excluded, presumably.) Plenty of people have responded to him, including The Quietus’s John Doran, who espoused his love for vinyl, and Bethyn Elfyn, who wrote a BBC blog about how much she loves Welsh record shops. As ever, I feel like I fall between two camps, even though I’m far, far closer to John and Bethyn than Rick.

Because, as a rule, I don’t love independent record shops. Well, not unequivocally. The record shops I frequented in my youth and young adulthood were the big chains, mainly; my older brother worked in HMV and, when we first met, my wife worked in Virgin Megastore. I shopped in Solo Music in Exeter often enough, and knew some of the staff, and when I was at university I shopped in Spinadisc on Northampton high street, too, but other indie record shops, the ones full of vinyl with someone dripping ennui behind the counter, I found uncomfortable, most of the time. Maybe it’s that the ones like that near me were rubbish, and the ones I popped into, tourist-like, on Berwick Street during trips to London I never frequented often enough to become familiar, and thus comfortable, with.

Also, and this is a serious consideration, I’m of that odd generation that falls between vinyl and MP3; I’m a CD lover. I have hundreds, thousands of them. In neat rows. With alphabetised dividers.I have always and will always prefer them to vinyl. Where others hear vinyl’s warmth I hear lack of clarity. Where others see gloriously big artwork I see tatty card sleeves. I love the way they refract light. I love the size, the portability of them; unlike vinyl, which you can’t really take anywhere without a proper box or bag, and unlike MP3s, which you can take all of, everywhere, all the time, in your pocket, you CAN take some CDs everywhere you go, but they have to be precious ones. Ones you really want to listen to. I know that sounds ridiculous. I have an 80gb iPod. I have an iPhone in my pocket pretty much all the time with several hundred songs on it.

Last week when I was in London I hopped off the tube in Covent Garden before I headed for Paddington and home, as it was the most convenient place for me to jump off and find a record store. Rob wanted me to pick up the PJ Harvey album on vinyl, and I wanted the Bill Callahan on CD for Devon Record Club the next day. So I exited the station and headed for HMV. It wasn’t there. So I tweeted, asking where there was still a record shop in Covent Garden, and googled on my phone too. Googling suggested Rough Trade in the yard; I followed the directions, but couldn’t see it. I wondered around aimlessly, looking for the Fopp that I always seem to stumble upon round there, but I couldn’t find that either; it looked as though it had been replaced with a Fred Perry shop, or else was boarded-up for renovation. Rob tweeted back at me with directions to the Rough Trade. I went back to the yard. Not there. I asked a guy sitting opposite where it was meant to be. It had closed. The HMV had closed. Where the hell could I buy a record in Covent Garden?

With some more directions, crowd-sourced from Twitter, I found the Fopp – I’d been at the wrong end of the street when I thought it’d become Fred Perry (I was wearing a Fred Perry at the time, for double irony) – and bought the records I was after. The guy who served me was an Exeter alum. We talked about how the Fopp in Exeter had closed. He’d worked in the same Virgin Megastore as Emma, too, when he was a student (after Em had left to become a student herself). That had closed too. MVC had closed. Solo had closed. The picture at the top of this post is of what used to be Exeter’s Fopp. Before it was Fopp it was the HMV where my brother worked. I’ve been buying records from that shop for the best part of 20 years. It’s almost a straight-line walk from my house. It takes seven minutes. I’m pretty sure there are more musical instrument shops in Exeter now than record shops.

Em is of the opinion that the beginning of the end for Virgin was when they moved to centralised ordering, effectively losing local knowledge and expertise, and customer service, in favour of “efficiency”. Efficiency doesn’t work if your customers don’t want to shop with you. She says Thresher suffered the same problem; moved to centralised ordering, lost touch with local trends and tastes, and collapsed. I’m inclined to agree. Attempting to cater to people who don’t really care about music has brought the big shops low. I can buy a plaid shirt or a Beatles mug in HMV but I can’t, the day after a prominent documentary about him airs on TV, buy an in-print Ron Sexsmith album. It’s people like me and the other Devon Record Club dudes, essentially the NME’s mockable £50 man (I’m in my 30s, I work a professional job, I have a mortgage, I don’t “party” like the kids), who are willing to still pay money for physical records. Our tastes are diverse and intense. We don’t want to buy the Take That record in Sainsburys. We want to pick up things that excite us. I’d have bought that Emeralds record last year if I’d ever seen a copy. I’ll buy Panda Bear’s Young Prayer at the weekend if I see it, or Ron Sexsmith’s debut, or something else that I’d never find in Tesco, or Sainsburys, or HMV as it is now.

Invisible music is a convenience for me, but it’ll never be a passion. I tried it, years ago, and didn’t get on with it. It made music into consumption, acquisition, rather than appreciation. I know new methods of distribution like Spotify go some way towards preventing that, but revenue models are still not fixed, and are far from benefiting the artist the way that physical sales can. Where’s the thrill or heart in downloading an MP3? I doubt anyone ever tells excited, reverent stories about the night that Tomboy leaked and they found a Mediafire link to it the way I tell people about how I felt making a 30-mile round trip, a pilgrimage, on the train up and down the Exe, to go to HMV and buy Kowalski and the Fireworks EP on the May bank holiday before my 18th birthday. I can still remember how I felt all the way home, imagining how the songs would sound (even though I’d heard some of them on the radio), delighted that I could play them endlessly when I got home. And besides, it’s a lot easier “curating” a physical collection than a digital one; all that tagging, sorting, finding covers, backing-up, sorting, searching, filling in a database, sitting at a computer being a librarian, like you’re at work. I just put them on shelves.

In the sleeve for Spoon’s last album it says “BUYING RECORDS IN RECORD STORES IS COOL.” I agree. It’s not only cool; it’s also delicious. I wanted to buy a handful of Cluster and Harmonia albums for months at the start of last year, never saw them in Exeter, and could have ordered them at any time online, but I knew I was going to New York at the start of May for our honeymoon, and who would pass up the chance to go record shopping in New York? Even in NYC I couldn’t find them all, but I got to buy two of the four I was after.

When I went back to Northampton, a year after graduating, and got drunk in old haunts with friends who had hated it as much as I had, we discovered that Spinadisc on the high street had closed. It had been replaced by a guidance centre for young people, which seemed ironic.

On Saturday I’m going to go to Totnes, to The Drift Record Shop, because it seems like the best thing to do.

Panda Bear – Tomboy

Imagine if you will, just for a moment, a strawman music fan who likes “real” music, played on “real” instruments by “real” people. I come across this kind of person less and less these days, but I used to encounter them all the time. My counter to their insistence on “real” music was always that it sounded boring, and that I preferred the idea of “unreal” music, which surely must be more exciting.

Panda Bear makes “unreal” music, both with Animal Collective and on his own. Music that doesn’t sound real, music that floats, that can’t be touched, that doesn’t seem to stem from anything physical. It’s a remarkable trick; one that has actually, despite my pining for “unreal” music, given me many problems over the years.

Tomboy is not so much drenched in reverb as dissolved in it. Listening to it is like trying to watch a 3D film without the polarising glasses required to bring the two images into alignment and thus (pseudo) reality; so many repetitions of the same sonic image are presented that your brain can’t quite follow them. Because of this, no matter the identifiable human elements (voices, emotions), it remains unreal, strange, other.

This shouldn’t be a surprise; Person Pitch is similarly untouchable through the echo. Some people have complained at the replacement of the bizarre sample-bed of Panda’s last solo outing with a more prosaic soil of guitars and drums, but really both albums are so defined by the reverb, by the haziness, by the repetition (be it the instant persistence of sound reverberating, or the prolonged repetition of a beat, or a vocal), that it’s often difficult to identify the sound sources anyway. The strummed acoustic guitars and 4/4 beats that make up swathes of Tomboy’s sonic architecture might as well be layered, looped collages of samples, because they feel the same.

Even the sleeve art, which appears to have been originally drawn on tracing paper, and might have been recreated similarly, like the sleeve of Lambchop’s What Another Spills (i.e. In tracing paper), is instead printed onto card, giving the illusion of another texture and making the actual texture seem unreal, untouchable, defying expectations. Likewise the words; once again I have no idea what Panda is singing, even when it’s obvious; is he being duplicitous on the opening track? Is he singing “know you can count on me” or “no you can’t count on me”? I know it’s the former, but I hear the latter as much, if not more; yet more obfuscation, more unreality.

As such, Tomboy really isn’t a million miles away from Person Pitch, though I’ve seen some suggest it might be. I don’t think of its precursor as being the unadulterated classic that so many claim; I love the moments of beatific, Gregorian-chant-Beach-Boys mantra, like the second half of Take Pills or the first half of Bros, which attain a state of euphoric tedium. But then so much of Person Pitch also becomes simply tedious, without the euphoria. Tomboy is equally touched with moments of blissful repetition (the title track’s close), and moments of boring repetition too (Drone). This is fine. So is life.

There are more songs here than on Person Pitch, and shorter on average, with only two stretching beyond five minutes and most done in around four. This means there’s no 10-minute centerpiece, but also that nothing outstays its welcome too long. This doesn’t necessarily make Tomboy easier to digest or poppier; thus far I’d say that nothing quite achieves the highest peaks mentioned as existing in Take Pills, but it might just be that Slow Motion and Last Night At The Jetty will take some time to settle in. Already, though, I prefer the tedium of Afterburner’s delicious exit groove to Good Girl/Carrots.

Noah Lennox and I are similar ages, and we’re both married. I don’t have a child but I imagine our wants are similar; two walls and adobe slabs, for our girls. Very real things, in which to keep safe our emotional lives. But sometimes emotions are best expressed through unreality. Even at his most ostensibly organic, acoustic, and “real” on AC’s Sung Tongs, Panda Bear managed to turn the same trick, to sound unreal. Sometimes the buzzing, reverberating unreality of it all gives me a headache; but mostly nowadays it makes me smile.

Sunday’s listening

Not a great deal to report today: I listened to Magical Mystery Tour twice while writing (once in the morning, and again in the afternoon), and All Eternals Deck once again, while finishing off a review of it for The Quietus. In the car I listened to Monkey Wrench by Foo Fighters and The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret by Queens Of The Stone Age; these played off my iPod Shuffle, which I made a 130-song playlist for this afternoon, and intend to keep in the car from now on (the new car has an aux-in socket).

And that was it. #musicdiaryproject is over for me. Well, sort of. There is still the survey for people to take, and my conclusions from it, and my thoughts about the week as a whole, to ponder on and write up, but the actual listening is all over.

Thank you to everyone who’s been involved; as mentioned, over 10 blogs, Tumblrs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds have been involved, and it’s been fascinating watching it happen.

Edit. Then I got hold of the new Battles album and listened to Ice Cream for the first time, via headphones. And that really was it.

Saturday’s listening

0645: Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92
I haven’t listened to this properly in a long time. Whenever I’m picking music to write or work to, and I think of ambient sounds, I reach for Stars Of The Lid, or The Necks, or The Field, as evidenced by Thursday’s listening. But arguably the two absolute kings of ambience, Eno and Aphex, seem to be forgotten.

So I put this on while I wrote Friday’s entry, and it’s on still as I write this part of this entry, immediately afterwards, although it will be published much later. It reminds me of university, of Northampton, of Oliver and James and Ben, of 6-year-old Asian kids throwing fireworks at the old man next door who tried to run them over. It is a disconcerting record, and that is probably why I overlook it as a writing or working aid; it isn’t ambience. It’s dark. It’s unpleasant. But only in parts. Other parts are absolutely beatific.

It’s now Sunday morning (I know; who’d have thought a paragraph break could take so much time?) and I’m finishing this post with the rest of yesterday’s listening. After Aphex Twin I listened to The Field’s second album again, while I prepared the survey for the project. I finished sorting the survey with five minutes left to go of the album; the last five minutes are my favourite, but I wanted to get away from the computer, so I turned it off and left the room.

Then I listened to All Eternals Deck by The Mountain Goats while playing a video game on an ancient, borrowed PS2. I only ever play one ancient football game, and with increasing rarity; it’s fair to say I have little interest in video games. This one game, however, I have played for so long (over a decade in different iterations) that I now play it almost unconsciously; thus it affords me the opportunity to soak in music in a much more attentive way than I usually can while writing / browsing / working, etc. I’ve been asked to review the Mountain Goats album for someone, so I took occasional notes on the iPad while I listened from the comfort of the sofa.

Later on in the afternoon, after lunch and a walk along the river, I listened to All Eternals Deck again, and then the new Bill Callahan that I’d taken to Devon Record Club, and then the last Bill Callahan, because mentioning Eid Ma Clack Shaw in yesterday’s post, and listening to Apocalypse!, had given me impetus.

And that was it. We went out for dinner with Emma’s family, came home, and I fell asleep during CSI: New York.

Friday’s listening

“Heard melodies are sweet” wrote John Keats in 1819, “but those unheard are sweeter.” Perhaps he had dreamed the perfect song, the secret chord that David played and it pleased the lord, the harmony that unites nations in peace, the sleep melody that elates the subconscious mind while at rest but which, when one wakes, and tries to capture it, becomes Eid Ma Clack Shaw.

Or maybe he was just writing about having the entirety of Your Mother Should Know by The Beatles spin around his head while he took a morning shower. Because that’s how my musical life started yesterday, and how it continued (bar a real moment of Love Spreads and an imagined moment of Against All Odds), until circa 6pm, when I got home from work and listened to The Milk Of Human Kindness by Caribou while I made myself dinner and wrote yesterday’s entry. When I sat down to write, I had to turn the volume down.

After the record had finished, with writing still needing to be done, I reached for the nearest unobtrusive (read “without prominent words”) music to hand, and found The Field’s second album again, which I put on to sail me through the last of my prose extraction. I got to the start of the end of track four, the title track, when everything fades away and leaves just the bass and the (real) drums, and I had finished. Which meant I could stand up, volume up, and do a little dance in the backroom, with the cats, because that is my favourite bit of that song, and one of my favourite three bits of that album, and I wished that it lasted forever, as I always do, and I wish that someone could point me in the direction of music that sounds like that 2-minute glimpse, but for more than two minutes. Just synthetic-sounding, trance-y bass, and John Stanier drumming, swinging, percussing.

And then I went back to the pub, where I had been briefly straight after work, and spent some time with my wife and her colleagues. And then I came home and watched a little of the tellybox.

Thursday’s listening

What a day.

Once again I worked from home, which despite the evidence of this week isn’t actually usual at all. This time, unlike Monday, I was prepared though, and could set-up my work laptop in the front room where the “big” stereo is (although the one in the backroom is bigger than most regular people’s, I suspect), which meant I could play music from in front of myself all day long (in the backroom, when at the computer, the speakers are behind you), choosing what I wanted of the shelves next to me rather than having to wander to the next room.

So that’s what I did, all day. Almost.

0730: Juliana Barwick – The Magic Place
The first time I’d played it, via the iPod and the Zeppelin dock whilst I made breakfast, pottered from room-to-room, etc etc. I only got through the first 7 tracks though. Very pretty, much more ambient than I expected (I think my mind was saying “Juliana Hatfield” at me), but not overwhelming.

0810: The Necks – Chemist
The first CD of the day was actually spun in the backroom while I wrote Wednesday’s entry. If you don’t know about The Necks, you should; an Australian (post)jazz trio who play elongated, hypnotic grooves of the highest order. Perfect for working to, and doing a lot of other things to, too.

0940: Primal Scream – Screamadelica (Remastered)
I worked for about half an hour in silence, and then the bright sunshine and clear blue skies demanded that I celebrate them with something suitable. I’ve not really opened this up since I got the remaster the other week, and it seemed like a great opportunity to open the windows and let the street hear it too. So I did, while spending an hour going through the previous day’s emails and editing photos.

1055: Various Artists – Impressed (with Gilles Peterson)
A thread slagging off Gilles Peterson got revived on ILM for seemingly no reason, and it inspired me to dig out this awesome compilation of 60s British jazz, which was recommended to me by a colleague when I worked in the library, many years ago.

1210: Boards of Canada – In A Beautiful Place In The Country
Em had arranged to work from home in the afternoon too, and would be back at 1230 when we had to pop to the post office, so I decided to put on an ambient-ish EP to fill the 20 minutes. This suited.

1230-1320: Buskers
In town we heard two sets of buskers; the first pair were playing Take Five by Dave Brubeck on a couple of acoustic guitars, the second was a lone beatboxer making a weird digderidoo sound. I preferred the former; who likes digeridoos? Everybody else does: he had a far larger crowd.

1345: The Field – From Here We Go Sublime, Yesterday and Today
Emma prefers the repetitive beats and droning synth textures of The Field as “music to work to” than the more ambient likes of, say, Stars Of The Lid, so I put both Field albums on, one after the other. I still adore Sequenced as much as I did two years ago. Emma prefers the debut, I think.

1600: The Necks – Hanging Garden
More Necks.

1715: The Beta Band – Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos EP
Slightly disappointed at not finishing this whole EP the other day, I clocked off from work and played it again, in full, in the backroom, while updating this blog re; #musicdiaryproject activity.

And then I went to Devon Record Club.

In the car on the way (to Ipplepen and Tom’s house, via Sainsbury’s car park and Rob’s car) I listened to about 8 tracks from The Very Best of The Stone Roses, inspired in an absent-minded way by the rumours (and rapid refutation) of a reconciliation and reformation. I’m very glad they’re not reforming; it would be horrific. Please, Stone Roses, stay dead. It struck me that the vocals on Love Spreads were in a much better… safe range… for Ian Brown to stay in than those on Ten Storey Love Song.

In Rob’s car on the way to Tom’s house, I announced my intention to play Zaireeka the next time I hosted, and take advantage of my surfeit of stereo equipment. I joked to Rob, who’s my direct boss at work, that I’d need the afternoon off to move and cable everything.

Devon Record Club
Tom, as host, had stipulated that we had to bring a record we’d not heard before. He went first, and played the new Kurt Vile album, which was much more mellow than I expected.

I went second, and played the new Bill Callahan album, which I had bought the previous day in London and left shrink-wrapped until it was time to put it in the CD drawer. We all seemed to enjoy it thoroughly.

And then it was Rob’s go, and he said he’d brought a record that he purchased 14 years ago but had never played. And he got Zaireeka out, and revealed that he’d also brought a boombox and a pair of speakers and his laptop so that we could play all four CDs at once. So we did: with Tom’s hi-fi, the boombox, Rob’s laptop hooked up to ancient computer speakers, and Tom’s iMac brought in from the other room and perched on a chair, pausing, synching, starting again for each track, trying to keep Marge, Rob’s dog, who was also in attendance, from being freaked-out, talking, smiling, being completely wide-eyed in bemusement and wonderment.

I’ve heard Zaireeka several times before; a couple of times at university, when we pointed each bedroom-stereo towards the landing, and once at home, with Emma, a similar array of motley sound-emitting-devices scattered about my parents’ home and us brandishing two remote controls each… I’ve also heard a stereo mixdown of it a couple of times, burnt to CD and given to me by a friend who is a ravenous Flaming Lips fan. Of course, I discarded the mixdown hastily, because it is as pointless as looking at a Kandinsky on a postage stamp. Once upon a time I was pretty much reduced to tears by seeing a Kandinsky exhibition at the V&A. On a stamp… “that’s pretty”. On a wall… sublime.

Zaireeka is, obviously, a phenomenon, and I use that word after some consideration, unlike any other musical experience you will ever encounter. It is overwhelming, and loud, and intense, and at the same time it is communal, and physical, and joyous, and dark, and mystifying, and magical. Tom kept saying “it’s not music, is it? It’s something else” and maybe he’s right; it’s sound-art, or interactive aural theatre, or participatory sonic sculpture. I don’t know. But it’s fantastic.

I got home just before midnight, and fell asleep happy, thoughts gently buzzing around my head.

The Music Diary Project

I have a memory of having written an article for Stylus many moons ago, back in the site’s early days of 2002 or 2003, which detailed everything I listened to in the space of a week. Sadly the Stylus archive has just migrated to a new server, and accessing all the old content is proving tricky. Google has saved me for numerous of the things I’ve linked to from recent posts here, but despite several attempts I can’t find this particular piece. I remember listening to Elvis Costello as I drove to play 5-a-side football.

I have been pondering doing this again. But with a difference.

One of the things that interests me most about music is its utility; how we use it. What is it for. How do we access it. As music writers the listening process can become, I fear, pretty artificial at points when compared with how “normal people” consume music, and I think that in order to write about music one must, occasionally, touch-base with normal methods of consumption. Or at least be aware that listening to 20 new records a week and passing judgement on all of them to some degree may influence the outcomes of those judgements and thus the relevance of those judgement to people who maybe buy acquire one new record a week.

I’m in a strange hinterland between being a music writer and a regular fan, and the differences in behaviour intrigue me. One set, to an extent, relies on another for recommendations, when the two sets are very different and the dissonance this may cause could mean that those recommendations are unreliable. But that’s only one tiny aspect.

So I’d like to get a load of people, music writers and non-music writers, but all music lovers, to chronicle not just what they listen to in a given week but how, where, why, and with whom they listen to it. In the name of research.

I’m going to suggest the first full week of April (Monday 4th to Sunday 10th) for this little social experiment, and I want you to join in. If you’re a music fan, writer, lover, maker, or whatever, and you keep a blog or website of any kind, join in. For a full week make a note of everything you listen to, and any contextual details you care to add to it, and throw it up online. You might want stick something on Tumblr every time you listen to something, or you might save up and write a massive missive at the end of the week. You might list every single song in detail, or merely impart in passing that you spent an hour with a dubstep playlist. Just tell us about it.

I intend to do this, and to get as many other people doing it as possible, and I’ll tag all my resultant blog posts with “musicdiaryproject”. If you did the same, that would be awesome.

Who’s in?