Tag Archives: talk talk

Shearwater – Rook (2008)

shearwater_rookI’ve said elsewhere that 2008 felt like a write-off as far as music was concerned. As far as a lot of things were concerned. Even now, five years hence, I don’t feel like I emerged from it with any definite favourite albums (although about three do appear in this project), whereas 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 feel littered with them. Even the records that I do like from 2008, I feel like I have odd relationships with.

Someone wanted me to hear Rook. I’d never really heard of Shearwater before, only tangentially heard of Okkervil River, the band Jonathan Meiburg (Shearwater’s leader) started out in. Stylus had ceased publishing, and I’d pretty much given up on writing about music. I’d pretty much given up on music.

I’ve just searched for it, and couldn’t find it, but I’m pretty sure I got an email from someone, a publicist or someone at a record label or someone, asking for my address and offering to send me an LP copy of Rook. Maybe I imagined the email? I’m pretty sure I replied, with my address, but saying that I currently had nowhere to write about anything, and that I’d pretty much given up anyway. I think they replied saying no matter, they just wanted me to hear Rook anyway. An LP arrived in the post. Maybe it just arrived by magic and the email exchange never took place? I’m beginning to doubt my memory now.

Actually, I just found these posts on ILM:

Never heard of these dudes before but Matador sent me the 12″ apros of nothing, with a download card, and I’m just on my first listen now – I must say I can see why they sent it me; I’m loving it so far and can only see my affection for it growing.
― Scik Mouthy, Thursday, June 12, 2008 10:08 AM

Man, were they right to send it to me.
― Scik Mouthy, Sunday, June 22, 2008 5:05 PM

Which explains it a little. I’m still sure I got an email though; otherwise how would they know where to send it?

I assume whoever it was who wanted me to hear Rook knew about my love of Talk Talk and my crusade against dynamic range compression and badly mixed and mastered records, because Rook bites hard from the legacy of Talk Talk’s final two records, and Mark Hollis’ solo album, and is beautifully recorded, making use of pounding and dramatic dynamic shifts as emotional fulcrums. There’s more than just Talk Talk at play, though; there’s a big hint of folk-rock, a sense of Kate Bush, a whisper of Final Fantasy (Owen Pallett, not the video game), Scott Walker…

Meiburg has an undergraduate degree in English literature, which shows in the poetic allusion of his lyrics, but also a postgraduate degree in Geography, with a dissertation entitled “The Biogeography of Striated Caracaras (Phalcoboenus australis)”. The striarted caracaras is a bird resident on the Falkland Islands, where it’s known colloquially as “Johnny Rook”. Meiburg spent a year observing remote human communities before enrolling for his masters. I’m not sure what this means. His voice is an incredibly mannered and performative thing, powerful and delicate.

I listened to Rook a lot as I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and they became tied together in my mind, not as close parallels but as vague allusions, thematic links, impressions of disaster and extreme emotion. Rook resolves itself, though; the piano chords and vocal melody on the final song, after the traumatic, too-brief-but-just-right climax of “The Snow Leopard”, with the horn, that blast atop the mountain, calling over the guitars, the drums, the double-bass, the spaceship noises… and then nothing, and then these really gentle chords and this delicate, melancholy, but uplifting melody… it’s like the guitar-as-sunlight-breaking-clouds intro to “New Grass”, but sweeter, less desolate. The world hasn’t ended and been reborn, as in Laughing Stock, but… perhaps humanity has left it, and nature has gladly taken over again?

I don’t often revisit Rook, for various reasons. It’s a special record, of the type that doesn’t seem to come along too often – self-contained, mysterious, beautiful, powerful. It feels religious but isn’t; it’s about birds, and love, and, quite possibly, impending environmental disaster. The cover art seems to try and construct a wider mythology for the music somehow. The music constructs its own mythology very well. It’s one of the few saving graces of 2008.

The records that shaped my life…

Many years back I’d vaguely intended on doing a series of podcasts for Stylus about ‘epiphany records’, which is almost, but not quite, what this ILM thread is about. An epiphany record would always be an album which shapes your life, but not all albums which shape your life would be epiphany records; some of them creep up on you and act as trends in the development of your taste you’re your relationship with music, rather than turning points that spin your preconceptions and ears round on themselves and leave you facing a new direction.

But anyway…

Age 5(?): Dionne Warwick – Do You Know The Way To San Jose?
I remember hearing this on some oldies local radio program, on Saturday mornings, on the way to the supermarket. The lyric about “all the stars / who never were / are parking cars and pumping gas” meant nothing to me at that age, but stuck in my mind. I still love Bacharach’s way with a melody.

Age 10-12: Guns ‘n’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction; Marillion – Misplaced Childhood
Cassette tapes (originals, not dubs), inherited from my older brothers, and listened to over and over and over again, the way ten year olds listen. I still own a copy of the former, but not the latter. I see it as about my only guilty pleasure. I’d probably quite enjoy it if I listened to it again.

Age 14: The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour
I got my first CD player at age 14, and stole a copy of this, and Sgt Pepper, from my dad. They were an odd pair of Beatles albums for him to own – why not the red and blue compilations? – amongst the dinner jazz and Neil Diamond and Frank Sinatra; he’s not very psychedelic. The brass, the codas, the instrumental, the basslines – this album left an indelible mark on the sonic signifiers, the aural aesthetics, that I’d respond to for the rest of my life thus far.

Age 15-16: The Stone Roses; Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
The Stone Roses I first heard at age 10, seeping through bedroom walls, and ignored. Later, I’d hear their songs again, recognise their contours, fall in love, Carole-Anne the CD for what felt like every waking hour. (That’s a reference for Kate, if she reads this – “Carole-Anne-ing” is now a verb in my mind, and I don’t even know the source-song – ‘Carole-Anne-ing, verb. to play a song or album over and over again’.) Marvin Gaye I bought because Ian Brown said it was the greatest album ever. I don’t know if I agreed, but it certainly affected me.

Age 17: Orbital – In Sides
Other albums impacted upon me at this age – Paul’s Boutique, Post, Public Enemy, many others – as I was ravenous for sounds and sensations I’d not felt before, but this really stopped me in my tracks. I still remember, and recount, that first listen as an epiphany, as the epiphany, of my musical fandom.

Age 18: Embrace – Fireworks EP; Spiritualized – Ladies & Gentlemen; Jeff Buckley – Grace; Aphex Twin – Richard D James Album
Records that would change my listening, that would impact me on first listen, leave me open mouthed, that would challenge and confound me, that would hook me into communities and activities that would shape my life as well as my tastes, continued to come thick and fast. These are probably the key four.

Age 20-21: Primal Scream – XTRMNTR; Miles Davis – In A Silent Way
XTRMNTR felt like an important record, and epochal record, a record that would change things. I think it actually did – I can see its echoes ripple through an awful lot of 00s music, from The DFA to The Klaxons. Miles Davis, and the rest of jazz beyond him, was something I’d tasted, decided to explore, when I was 19, but which really started to click with me when I found In A Silent Way.

Age 23; Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden
I don’t remember quite how I got here, or when I first heard it. I’m pretty sure that ILM and AllMusic led the way, my ravenous research and consumption of music aided and abetted by an undemanding job which gave me free access to the internet and a huge collection of jazz vinyl to explore. This seemed like the logical culmination of that. I barely ever listen to it these days.

Age 24: Manitoba – Up In Flames
Another epiphany – this seemed, on first listen, to have been designed to fit my tastes. I ranted a review about it, and followed Dan Snaith closely from hereon in. He’s got better since, and my affection and admiration for his music has grown, but the moment I bust this out of the cellophane and stuck it in the CD player is a strong memory.

Age 25: The Necks – Drive By
We played a lot of records in the AV department in the library – Fugazi, Underworld, O Rang, John Coltrane, Captain Beefheart, Bob Dylan, De La Soul, Brian Eno, T Power, Charles Mingus, field records of religious Shaker music, and much, much more – but this was the record that was commented on more than any other, and always positively. I own about 8 of their albums now; they’re all the same, all different, but this remains the one I’ve listened to the most. So many times.

Age 28: Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga; LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
I’m not sure that any records since then have “shaped my life”; there have been so many, that the influence of any individual record seems miniscule. These two each feel important, though…

What I’ve not really dealt with here is singles – bar Dionne Warwick – even though they make up many of the epiphanies and trends of my listening. Maybe that’s for another post.

My favourite album

I’ve been keeping tabs on The Guardian’s My favourite album series of blog posts, where their writers and contributors of a musical nature celebrate the records they love the most, the ones that have touched them, defined moments (or epochs) of their lives. Would any of them pick albums I love? (Yes, they would.) Would any of them pick any canonical favourites that I don’t rate? (Yes, they would.) Would any of them put a deeply personal spin on a record I otherwise couldn’t give a damn about, and make me consider it in a new light? (Almost.) (I’m resigned to never “getting” Pink Floyd now, and am more than OK with this.)

The reasons why people chose the records they did were almost as varied as the records in the specifics, but broadly speaking they were personal, the albums in question being used as emotional batteries, loaded with associations with times past, people gone, experiences that impacted deeply on the listeners’ lives. It didn’t matter if the record in question was a compilation of pop singles by different people that had been played to death as a child, or a recent(ish) critical favourite that just happened to soundtrack a rite-of-passage break-up; what mattered was the connection, between the music, the event, the time, the person, which had become indelible.

All through the series I’ve been pondering what I might choose if I was still throwing words at The Guardian, what album I’d anoint in public as my favourite. And I have no idea at all. If it ever comes up in casual conversation with someone new that I’ve written about music, they invariably ask me what my favourite record is. I used to have a stock answer that I’d trot out (Spirit of Eden by Talk Talk), but although I love it to bits, I’m not sure it’s the favourite, just a favourite, one amongst many.

The genuine answer to “what’s your favourite record?” is probably “the last one I listened to and loved”, which seems pragmatic to the point of pointlessness. There are dozens, maybe even hundreds, that I adore enough to call a favourite, and wouldn’t want to ever be without. For end-of-year lists and announcements I used to try and figure out which record I’d played most through choice in the previous 12 months, reasoning that this must, by default, be the one I liked the most. But when the time limit is exploded, tastes change, reactions develop, memories fade, and criteria like that don’t quite work. Do they? There are records that can’t be played often but which have enormous power and impact when you do roll them out; records you have intense love affairs with and then file away, never to play again; records that are default go-to choices, which never fail to hit the spot; records that function as epiphanies in the development of your taste, which inspire huge u-turns and explorations but which exist only as records and not as emotional investments or signifiers; there are records which you don’t “like” aesthetically but which, for whatever reason, are hardwired into your emotions and trigger a response no matter what.

And, occasionally, if you’re lucky, there are records that combine many, or most (but probably not all!) of the above…

Wild Beasts – Smother

Wild Beasts had the temerity, or bad luck, or gumption, or something, to release their debut album, Limbo Panto, in 2008, which is, lest we forget, the year I didn’t care about music, and so I had no idea who they were when they began. How much me not being aware of them must have damaged their career, I cannot begin to fathom, but potentially they may have been denied at least a couple of album sales by me not enthusing about them. Such is life.

Actually, to be honest, I picked-up (well, ordered online) Limbo Panto earlier this week, and now I’ve finally heard it, I’m not all that fussed about it, so it’s probably for the best that I didn’t experience their first flush of creativity, because I might have dismissed them as not worth bothering with. Which would have denied me the extreme pleasure of listening to their subsequent output.

I purchased Two Dancers, Wild Beasts’ second record, as my Christmas Album at the end of 2009, listened to it about five times, quite enjoyed it, and filed it away, mentally marking it as “just quite a good rock record”. I think my antipathy was in part driven, ad this may make me sound insane, by the fact that the enormous, praise-laden sticker slapped on the front of the jewel case and obscuring the artwork, wouldn’t come off. For some reason I couldn’t be bothered to switch the case, which I’d normally do. Stickers on CD cases annoy me intensely, and I think I allowed my distaste of the sticker’s grubby residue to deter me from pulling the CD out of the shelves and playing it.

Then, a couple of months ago, I noticed people talking about their new album, Smother, with eager anticipation across the various internet channels I use to find out about music. I saw a hint that Spirit Of Eden might be one of Wild Beasts’ favourite records, glimpsed some intriguing quotes, got the impression that this band had made a subtle, rich, modernist, rewarding record, and felt that familiar desire to dig deeper and prove my earlier, hastily formed opinion wrong.

Sure enough, I love Smother. It might be my favourite record of the year, alongside PJ Harvey and Nicolas Jaar, a trio of white-covered records that are appealing enough to allure at first listen yet complex enough to still be growers weeks later. My favourite kind of record.

I’ve been revisiting Two Dancers, too; I’ve switched the case, taken it out in the car, slapped it on the full hi-fi, and felt it attach itself to whatever part of my brain it is that drives the desire to listen to music over and over again. I’ve had snatches of melodies and words from Two Dancers spin around my head, joining bits of other songs by other artists, songs I’ve known for decades, in symbiotic cerebral mash-ups.

Across Wild Beasts’ three albums so far it seems as if they’ve been engaged, a little like Spoon, in a process of taking away, of calming down, of realising that space is as potent a tool as energy. Two Dancers refined the drama and occasional chaos of Limbo Panto, and Smother refines the noisy surges and tempestuous rhythms of Two Dancers even further. Amazingly, though I adore the pounding twists and squalling turns of Two Dancers, they’ve turned the trick of not becoming staid or boring or loose without them. There is as much drama in Smother, as much sensuality, as much climax, as they’ve managed before, but now it lasts longer, calls you back for more. It’s delicious.

I’ve seen a few people state that Wild Beasts’ antecedents or influences are hard to define; after a decade of LCD Soundsystem literally listing their influences in their lyrics, I wonder if people have lost a bit of the skill of identifying what something actually sounds like if it’s not spelt out explicitly. Maybe a band with a sound not directly in thrall to a previous era’s scene or aesthetic is a baffling concern in 2011?

For what it’s worth, to my ears the pointillist guitars and skittering-yet-lilting rhythms of songs like Reach A Bit Further almost recall modern-day Radiohead, but totally unafraid of being liked, of being organic, of being sensual. That occasionally frenetic sensuality feels like Long Fin Killie. The space and momentum and sophistication being developed in Smother reminds me of Talk Talk circa The Colour Of Spring. I can hear snatches of Elbow, of The Associates… But mostly I hear Wild Beasts.

And then there are the voices: two exceptional, unusual, expressive voices, one a fragile, glass-made thing like a decadent, delicate sculpture of Anthony Hegarty’s intonation, the other a chestier, sourdough concoction, somewhere between David Sylvain, Paul Heaton, and Guy Garvey. Both singers are capable of whooping yelps of pleasure or pain, of dazzling skips across and beyond your expectations. I wonder how much the vocal tools at Wild Beasts’ disposal have influenced their sound; they could never in a million years make music like Oasis. When the two of them sing together, properly dueting with each other, I swoon.

I think I’ve found my new favourite band.

King Creosote and John Hopkins – Diamond Mine

The new King Creosote album, a collaboration with composer and arranger John Hopkins, is a beautiful, redolent drift of a record. It’s intended to evoke a specific place (a district of northern Scotland), and pulls that strange trick of making me feel that it succeeds, even though I’ve never been to the place in question. Its seven songs are slow, soft, and shrouded in atmosphere, from the ambient sounds of a cafe to slowly disintegrating piano loops, car indicators, plains of synthetic chords, and the feel of tired fingers on banjo strings. I’ve listened to it four times just this evening (easily done, as it lasts barely 32 minutes).

King Creosote, who has released some 30+ albums in the last decade, has said he’s been working on Diamond Mine for seven years; I don’t know his catalogue enough to know if this is true, but apparently Diamond Mine is comprised of reworked songs from his other records, given elongated arrangements courtesy of Hopkins. Again, I don’t know either man’s previous work well at all, but they seem like a good fit for each other.

King Creosote has also said that Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden, which I know very well indeed, is his favourite album, and that Diamond Mine is something of an attempt to capture the aura of that legendary record. I can see what he means, and I can understand that Diamond Mine, which I am already very fond of, succeeds in this ambition. To an extent. But there is something missing.

So many artists who profess to aiming for the feel of Spirit Of Eden emulate only one side of that record; its beatific, otherworldly beauty, its gentle washes and becalmed vistas, its ambience and soothing balm. Too often the other side of Spirit Of Eden is ignored, or not noticed, or else out of reach for some reason; the clattering, cathartic noise, the pummelling drums and yowling guitars, the sense that all is not well, that, in fact, something is very, very wrong indeed. Perfect calm juxtaposed with absolute chaos. The beautiful parts made all the more so by falling in relief to the parts that threaten to destroy them.

Diamond Mine doesn’t need absolute chaos; it’s a beautiful record either way. But I wonder what it might have been had it reached for both sides.

Hidden (until now)

This is why I hate lists.

I knew about Hidden, the second album by These New Puritans, in February. I knew that it was ambitious, orchestral, experimental; that it tied post-punk to dubstep to English classical; that the singer was… an acquired taste. But something, somewhere, made me resist buying it. I’m not sure what.

Then, by internet happenstance, I found out that it was produced by Graham Sutton of Bark Psychosis, who I’m a massive fan of and who I interviewed, once upon a time, for Stylus. During that interview Graham explained that he didn’t always get turned on by the music he produced for other people, but that, like a gynecologist, that wasn’t an appropriate professional response anyway. The talk of dubstep and Elgar in relation to Hidden made me wonder if he might have enjoyed working on this particular album more than, say, the second Delays record though.

So I bought it, and listened to it, and sure enough, was wowed by the massive Japanese taiko drums, by the subtleties in the mix, by the space, the ambition, the redolence of late-period Talk Talk, even by some of the hooks. But I didn’t fall in love with it immediately.

Then it got made NME’s album of the year, and even though I wasn’t in love with Hidden, it struck me as very clearly being the most exciting choice by NME since they anointed Spiritualized’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space in 1997. Further kudos followed; no other polls were topped (that I’ve seen; and I’ve seen a lot), but it was getting plaudits left, right, and centre pretty much.

So I decided to pay it more attention.

And now I’m wishing I’d risked my £10 on a whim back in February, because Hidden actually is astonishing, front-to-back. Had I acquired it and given it the attention it deserved sooner, it would have been up with Caribou and Four Tet in my top ten for the year. A couple of internet music geek associates of mine are talking about it in terms of being the best album of the last few years. I need to give it more time. There’s a lot to explore.

Because Hidden takes in everything. It seems to combine MIA’s repetitious futurist polemic with the dark modernist classicism of Scott Walker’s fascinating, avant-garde The Drift; Talk Talk’s latter day soarings into new hinterlands of ambient/blues/classical/jazz/noise territory with Wire’s Escher-like side-step post-punk songwriting; it combines the hooks and physical punch of noughties digital dance music with the drama, delicacy, and dynamism of beatific, edge-of-chaos string and brass arrangements; it seems to do all this very well indeed. I put it on last night and slowly edged the volume up a little until it enveloped the house and freaked the cats out. Fire-Power’s combative electronic+percussive pummeling, seemingly clearly referencing MIA, suddenly switches into some kind of colliery band elegy.

Someone arrived at my blog the other day by googling “kanye west dark twisted fantasy compression”. I’ve been thinking about ‘remastering’ my old Imperfect Sound Forever article, and I suspect that Hidden has just given me the impetus to do so.