Well, this is going to be an interesting Album of the Month.
Each one of us on the blog/pod has a history with Sufjan Stevens. Some longer than others, some with more passion than others. But that doesn’t mean that we agree on all things Sufjan. Quite the opposite it appears. And if there was a Sufjan album to force a wedge between our personal preferences … then this is it.
My history with Sufjan was a little delayed given the wave of adoration that followed ‘Illinois’. Apparently I was a little slow on the uptake. Illinois was released in 2005 (gulp). I didn’t get to it until around 2009. I can mark the time well as my wife was pregnant with my first child and we (over) played it to death. She didn’t have the greatest pregnancy and now can’t listen to the album as it is so synonymous with feeling sick and bloated. Not Sufjan’s fault but still. I then bought the Age of Adz the day after my daughter was born. This album marked a seismic change in instrumentation from Sufjan … one that came with a very mixed (and in the case of David, surprisingly aggressive) reaction. I loved it, but hey, I’d just had a little girl. I would have loved most things.
Then came a silly Xmas album in 2012 … and then in 2015 we chose Carrie and Lowell (C&L) as album of the month. And I think we all agreed it’s close to perfection. As albums that I love to cry along to go, it’s right up there with Put Your Back N 2 it by Perfume Genius. It’s deeply personal, beautifully sparse, hypnotically produced and perfectly written.
A bunch of oddities have been released between then and now. But The Ascension is Mr. Steven’s first proper album since then. Much to David’s shock, the album is ‘Electro Sufjan’ again. But I would state that it is a very different proposition to Age of Adz. Age of Adz was full of pomp and theatrical posturing. I get why some hated it. I didn’t and that’s cool.
I think this album is at least as personal and introspective as C&L. Sufjan was moving from New York to the countryside of America and didn’t have access to his banjos, guitars and traditional range of instruments. He has said that he was limited to what he could plug into his computer. For me, this album does feel like he was ‘constrained’. But I am not sure if this is in a bad way. It’s a very different Sufjan Stevens we hear on this album and I am ok with that. Some have suggested it sounds like he’s ‘trying to hard’. I think this album sounds like he’s ‘trying’, i.e. this doesn’t feel 100% natural and feels less than 100% comfortable … but I am ok with this. I think I am getting into this vulnerability.
Let’s talk about its length. It’s long! 80 minutes. Exactly 100% longer than my preferred album length. There are some long old tracks on it too. The longest, America (12 mins) was the 1st single so it’s not like we didn’t have warning. He also shared Sugar ahead of the release date which clocks in at 7+ mins. He also shared a 15 strong track list for the album. So I guess this has to be considered as a ‘double album’ which isn’t usually a good thing.
You have to make a commitment to this album. I think it only makes sense when you do. I’ve practically listened to nothing else for a whole week. And I have been rewarded. I don’t ‘love’ this yet. But I am loving listening to it. As each track starts, I know that I like each one. There are no tracks here that I would remove. This is true for very few albums. Some tracks i like. Some I love. I think a few of my all time fave Sufjan tracks are on this album. He’s a great song writer and he’s doing something very different. I think we should respect that and applaud it.
Sufjan Steven’s is one of the few artists that when he’s reviewed, lazy critics don’t simply list a bunch of people he sounds like … cause he doesn’t. Other people sound like him. However, there are moments where for the 1st time I’ve thought … oh … he’s doing a Thom Yorke thing there (Ativan) or a Caribou drum production thing (I want to die happy and a few others). I don’t think he’s mastered the electronic craft yet and is therefore referencing others but again … I’m cool with that.
There are a few moments where someone should have tapped him on the shoulder and said ‘that’s enough Sufjan’ (i) America should be an 8 minute track, the last 4 minutes? Sorry but no (ii) Ativan should be 4 mins for the same reason.
So. At this point in time. I am very glad this is in my life. I am glad he’s done what he’s done. Oh, and Video Games is such a surprise. Where did that come from? Single of the year? (I can hear all of your screaming at me for suggesting that one).
Commit to it. Give it some space and time. It does deserve it.
Throughout lockdown I searched high and low for new music and in general struggled to find something that blew my mind. This was until Sault released ‘Untitled (Black Is)’. Over 3 months since the first listen it is still fresh as the first listen and I’m excited to present it to you as this month’s album of the month.
Who are Sault and where have they come from? In short, nobody really knows. It’s written that they’re a collective most likely from London and they’re on the Forever Living Origionals imprint. Cleo Sol is thought to be in the band, so is Kid Sister and Inflo. In the last 18 months they have released 3 full albums that are all thriller and no filler. Their sound in my humble opinion is incredible. It firmly falls into my wheelhouse. They cover a wide spectrum of sounds with soul firmly at the heart of everything they do.
Like their first two releases, our album of the month Untitled (Black Is) came out of nowhere. The first time the world heard it was on the Giles Peterson show. He rated it so highly that he played the entire album on its’ first play in June. They posted on their social media upon the digital release “We present our first ‘Untitled’ album to mark a moment in time where we as Black People, and of Black Origin are fighting for our lives. RIP George Floyd and all those who have suffered from police brutality and systemic racism. Change is happening…We are focused.”
Focused is an understatement. From the initial ‘Out the Lies’, followed by ‘Stop Dem’, ‘Hard Life’, and ‘Don’t Shoot Guns Down’ the scene is set for the majestic ‘Wildfires’; which exudes inspiration and determination amongst deep frustration as the first half of the album swiftly pulls you in. As Sault swerve through the multi genre effort you’re continually impressed with each new sound whilst purveying the consistent message of black unity. As the album nears it’s end the message moves from frustration to hope.
Sault have released an album of heart felt, thought provoking songs that inspire and for some hopefully educate. At face value I would wonder if an album that moves through psychedelic soul, dub, reggae and spoken word within minutes of each other would work? This album does this on numerous occasions without flinching. We often talk about albums and their programming. It is 56 minutes long, 20 tracks deep with a mixture of songs and interludes. I struggle to find a track that doesn’t belong.
This album was the first in months that I was truly blown away by. Since the pre-lockdown release of RTJ4. I write this on the day that Sault announced the follow up to Untitled is imminent. More of their musical magic is on the way and I for one can’t wait!
This blog is about music. What we like. What we listen to. What we want others to hear about. But perhaps it’s also an advertisement of who we are, too. So this is a post about the next – striking, interesting, challenging – album of the month, but it’s also a bit more than that.
As Camus said, life is a sum of all your choices, and as human beings we are often predisposed to taking the easy route. Whether that’s professionally, personally, in our cultural spaces, online, we often surround ourselves with things that look and sound like us, subconsciously or otherwise. As a white, straight middle-class and middle-aged guy, my cultural tastes aren’t completely blinkered, but it’s fair to say that a lot of the music I like is by people that are quite like me. But recent events have certainly made me look at that more closely and what I move towards naturally, and so it’s a chance to think about what I listen to, what I watch, and what that says about me and who I am. It’s a conversation we should all be having with ourselves.
When we think about music, and what we’ve written about on this blog, I’ve looked at my choices of music, especially albums of the month I’ve nominated (around 30 since we started) and it’s been a sobering how vanilla I’ve been. Yes, I love hip-hop, I like disco, soul, r’n’b, electronic music – all genres and scenes that are built on or by people of colour. And many things I love in those scenes and that I listen to, love, recommend, highlight are by those artists. Off the top of my head: Prince, Sampha, Donna Summer, Sylvester, Gwen MacRae, Michael Kiwanuka, N.E.R.D., Little Simz, Farley Jackmaster Funk, De La Soul, Loletta Holloway, Derrick May, Frankie Knuckles, Honey Dijon, Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder, Jocelyn Brown, Whitney Houston, Dizzee, Tribe, Beyonce, Bobby Womack, Carl Cox, Chaka Khan… this list is actually huge when I look at it in my collection. But…. In this blog, it’s only Michael Kiwanuka (twice), N.E.R.D. and Sampha that I’ve nominated as my pick, against a much wider and diverse range of artists that have been nominated. And, here we are.
I therefore could’ve chosen some easy hits: albums I knew I’d have liked by artists I already knew (I’ve nominated Roisin, Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem, John Grant after all). And when Everything Everything had an album out this month, it was an obvious choice. But then what would I be saying with that? What would we be opening our minds to? What challenge would that be? I realised that making unconscious, simple choices is what structural inequality is built on. No, choosing an album by people that look like me is hardly equivalent to saying ‘All Lives Matter’, but it’s important to question choices and do something you wouldn’t normally do.
This what brought me to Yves Tumor. They’re an artist that I knew almost nothing of, bar some appearances on ‘albums to watch’ or ‘this is out this year’ lists for 2020, but I wasn’t familiar with their music. Which is why it’s a good choice because it’s fresh, and something to approach without any context for us, unusual as it is. Heaven of a Tortured Mind is actually Yves’ fourth album, and it’s the creation of Shane Bowie (though even that isn’t ‘confirmed’ as their name). Reading into their music history it’s just part of a narrative of a rootless, shapeshifting journey from Tennessee to perhaps Berlin, or LA, or Italy (again, no one is ever sure where they’re living, and that’s how they want it). But first and foremost, musically, it’s absolutely not playing to the crowd or expectation. It’s been a while since I’ve heard an album that doesn’t really sound – as a whole – like anything else I have heard. Of course there are touchstones in many of the tracks and familiar links to artists we know, but it’s something different.
Listening to it a few times, despite the inability to pin down any one genre, there is real groove and melody to Heaven To A Tortured Mind. In amongst the noise, the echo, reverb, distortion, the detuned notes and general off-kilter-ness of it all, it’s clear that Tumor is a musician, and a talented one. But it comes in a box that is murky and unvarnished, and takes some time to go from first impression to working out how you feel about the album. And yet there are some absolutely accessible and memorable tracks that get to you immediately. The soaring brass and heavy percussive march of Gospel For A New Century, Kerosene!’s trading of Tumor and Diana Gordon’s vocals with rasping guitar licks that trade Prince as much as they do lyrically with words of desire and lust. Hasdallen Lights melds strings and low, funk bass, while Romanticist’s languid groove and shuffling percussion burn like the ashen embers of modern R’n’B, at once merging into Dream Palette’s almost punky shout. There’s so much genre-twisting, yet in isolation what seems like a collection of loose tracks, somehow takes on a more obvious form as a single, linear journey, finishing with the quasi-70s soul licks of A Greater Love. It’s as intriguing as it is confounding. And after a good number of listens, it’s still not entirely clear what to make of it. But searching for new musical horizons isn’t meant to be smooth or simple.
And while this isn’t instantly accessible, chart-intended music, it is also the most accessible of the quartet of albums so far. Stretching out through ambient, industrial, noise-making and only sparingly using vocals, Tumor was far more suited to Warp’s aesthetic on previous work, where 9 or 10-minute tracks were as common as 3-minute efforts. This latest appears another evolution, intended or otherwise, to tentatively embrace convention, even if it’s small steps. And for all the influences and supposed touchstones (think Prince, of course, 70s soul, 90s shoegaze and industrial sounds, TV On The Radio, as well as contemporaries such as Moses Sumney’s inventive soundscapes or even Tame Impala’s psychedelic, feedback laden guitars) they feel very much Yves’s own universe. The other take I instantly had of the album is that there’s so many great hooks and melodies that I could see every one of the tracks as the backing to a great hip-hop tune, also always a good sign of pretty brilliant musicianship.
Then there are the videos. Since Yves Tumour came to being, the visual impact has been as important as the sonic. If you only watched Gospel For A New Century, with its lucifer figure, writing semi-naked bodies, with Hades reimagined as a sort of dystopian nightclub, that would only half describe its first time sensual assault. Throughout their career, the visual aspect has been a striking accompaniment to the music. 2019’s Lifetime had Tumor as a beaded, chokered, horned being, then sporting a Mohican. Licking An Orchid was a discomforting infra-red lament with juddering camerawork. In one of their more conventional works, Noid has them as an arrested black person on the street, an enduring and powerful image, but is just as striking as their more otherworldly imagery. In every aspect of their creative life, it feels like it’s an aspect them assume total control of. Perhaps its because the rest of their life remains much of a mystery. Famously aloof – conducting video interviews only showing the top of their head, then switching the camera off, or refusing to confirm where they’re living or working – they’d rather focus on artistry than themselves. But having worked under a raft of pseudonyms, life may be easier when you have nothing to focus on but the creative.
What’s abundantly clear is there aren’t many around like them, not least at the forefront of music. And this can only be celebrated, even if what Yves Tumor’s meant to be and what their music is meant to mean remains deliberately ambiguous, intentionally unlinear. Gone with physical music’s domination are the days of what we can expect, what genres people should make, and how an album should be constructed. But with music so obsessed with the single, the shuffle, the 3-minute quantised, compressed pop commodity or hip-hop banger, it’s good to know that not everyone subscribes to this. If everything Tumor does isn’t easily digestible, then let’s celebrate that.
Let’s just get one thing out of the way. Disco is one of the finest forms of pop music. I don’t even want to hear an argument otherwise. But it gets a bad rap. The old ‘disco sucks’ chant still rings in the ears after all these years.
(Cue excuse to repost my own recent disco mix that begins with the ‘disco sucks’ chant https://soundcloud.com/mondopop/disco-demolition)
It’s light. It lacks depth. It’s silly. It’s throwaway. It’s too female, it’s too gay. It’s not the ‘real’ music of boys with guitars (thanks Men on the Internet for your views).
Obviously, this is a view of such reductive idiocy, it’s barely worth debating. if you can’t find the genius in a Roisin Murphy or a Robyn album, then maybe you don’t even like music. If you aren’t moved by ‘I Feel Love’, then maybe you don’t even have a pulse.
Actually, that’s what I like most in a disco track: emotion. Not just to want to dance, but to feel *moved*. And boy, is there plenty of that on this latest offering from our Jessie. Spoiler alert: I ABSOLUTELY FUCKING LOVE THIS ALBUM.
I loved Jessie Ware’s first album, Devotion, which cut a classy nu-soul vibe that felt like a Sade throwback. But I lost my way with her a little, and found her second and third a bit lacklustre, and treading the same path.
I chose this album without hearing it for the AOTM on the back of some really stellar reviews, and from Gay Twitter (or at least, Gay Twitter that I follow anyway…) losing their shit on how good it is.
They weren’t wrong. This is a major reboot which finds Jessie W rejuvenated and raring to go. Working with former Simian Mobile Disco stalwart James Ford, they mine the musical past in search of nuggets, and they nearly always come up with gold.
The most obvious influence is Italo-Disco and House of the 80s (and I LOVE that shit). The title track could be a lost classic. But it’s enormous fun hearing all the influences that went into the melting pot of this record. Opener Spotlight is a smooth opener that could easily be late Kylie. Ooh La La is total Nile Rodgers-era Duran Duran. Soul Control and Read My Lips are 80s soul-disco in a Gwen Guthrie ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But The Rent’ style.
And then the other obvious shadow on this album. No, not Roisin, it’s not as left field as that: I’m talking about Robyn. And I’m thinking specifically about her last album, Honey (a former AOTM wasn’t it?). Check out Save A Kiss – it could easily sit on that record:
The big questions is – do all these influences turn into something new? Does it feel as fresh and as contemporary as Robyn manages to sound? Honestly – well maybe not quite. It’s certainly lyrically pretty obvious and at times quite trite, which fits the vibe but doesn’t offer that emotional connection that Robyn so often does in her work.
But it doesn’t feel like a throwback record either. I was thinking of Daft Punk’s behemoth, Random Access Memory. Having deconstructed disco and funk in their early work, that album felt more like a more simple homage. I know it divided critics but I LOVE it. This album reminds me of that a little, in that it feels like a love letter to that music, while being very much its own universe.
Of course, the real test will be – will I stick this on at a party? And will I still be listening to it in a year? I don’t know yet, but I’d take a guess that I will be.
What’s Your Pleasure? Mine’s certainly this album.
Cometh the hour, cometh the album.
Sometimes a record captures a moment in time so perfectly, it becomes a symbol of that moment. I honestly believe that RTJ4 might be one of those records.
I don’t want to be a big review like we normally do, I’d rather we used this as a kicking off point for discussion – this is a ‘free album’ month after all, and we’ll get back to the proper AOTM for July.
But…I was thinking a lot about what Brother Nolan said on our live chat the other week, that he thought it was one of RTJ’s weaker releases. I don’t know about that. I know that I’ve listened to this RTJ’s album more than any other that has come out. BY MILES. Now, maybe it’s the times we’re living in, maybe it feels like even more of a reflection. But this is a lean, mean beast. Clocking in at 39 mins and 11 tracks, it’s the length of an album from the 1960s, not a hip hop album in 2020, which, let’s face it, is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS TOO FUCKING LONG.
That brevity seems to give the Killer Mike and El-P a laser focus, and honestly, I don’t think there’s a wasted moment on this record. No, not every track is out there political. Yes, the conceit of them as two outlaws on the run (referenced on the opening and closing tracks) is a little obvious and they don’t go anywhere with it. Yes, Ooh La La is a total throwback tune (but come on, WHAT a tune).
But seriously, there are four or five cuts on here that are essential to anyone at any time. Guests are used really well – like, they bring something to the table every time. Pharell’s collab (along with a great cameo from Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha) on JUST is as good a thing as he’s done in a long time – what a fucking smart track that is, expressing something complex and angry at the same time, . And a banger too. PULLING THE PIN is straight out astonishing, the addition of Mavis Staples voice adding so much pain and anguish to the track. And the Gangsta Boo tune WALKING IN THE SNOW is, to my mind, as good a track as they have ever made. It’s so angry and articulate and it smacked me sideways when I first heard it.
Basically, I love it. I can’t stop listening to it. It’s gonna be one of my albums of the year. Over to you, brothers…
Hi Brothers. Another lockdown AOTM. However, lockdown has nothing to do with why I chose this album by Mac Miller. This album was released in early Feb. so for me, it’s history pre-dates ‘all-of-this’ / ‘what-with-one-thing-and-another’ / insert your favourite ‘lock-down-euphemism’.
I could have chosen less risky AOTM options but figured that we all know what the Strokes sound like. Therefore I chose Circles by Mac Miller. Again, I cannot claim to be a an expert in this artist. I came to this early in 2020 when surfing through Meta-album-of-the-year sites. This album kept on showing up in the upper reaches of their meta-review scores. Also, it seemed to be one where the listener scores were very similar to the critics reviews which always makes me pay attention. So, without any further fannying around I downloaded the album, got stuck in and found myself listening to this loads.
I found it a rewarding album to listen to in full and in parts when time was limited. Tracks started to stick in my mind and the the tracks started to open themselves open. When you first listen to it I can feel really pleasant and accessible, it will make you smile and feel pretty good about life. However, I would be surprised if at some point (early on) you didn’t think it was a little dispensable … but I do think it deserves a little more attention. There’s obviously a big chunk of melancholy driving this album. I noticed that when the tracks started to unfold on repeated listens a comfortable but uncomfortable feeling started to creep over me.
It was this odd feeling that made me go back and read the reviews of the album. I think I am glad that I listened first and then read the reviews later. It turns out that this is a posthumous release. Mac Miller died in 2018 of an apparently accidental overdose. The Guardian described him as a capable but derivative frat-rapper (didn’t even know frat-rap was a thing) who started to experiment on later albums with a softer approach. He was a mult-instrumentlist who collaborated with the LA instrumental hip-hop crowd (Flying Lotus et al.). He was also in a long standing relationship with Ariana Grande, the end of which sparked his turn in musical direction.
He released a critically acclaimed album ‘Swimming’ in 2018 before his death. He left a significant amount of material that was developed by Jon Brion (friend, producer, composer) with the blessing of his family. Jon has kept the feel of Swimming (which he co-produced) on this album. Sparse, gentle, elegant and spacious production allows this album to flow around what turns out to be some beautiful lyrical content.
I rate this album. I keep coming back to it. It seemed perfect on the cold, dark commutes into Manchester … and on the cold, dark commutes home. It’s great music to cook to. It has a low-F-bomb-count. Low enough that Stacey’s never noticed so it gets plenty of air-time in our house. It also felt like the perfect album when it was 23 degrees last weekend. I think this will stay with me for a long time. I can hear loads of influences but nothing that I think is over-bearing. There are moments of Neptunes-esque and Neptunes-quality production that make me smile. It’s a lovely little thing. I hope you enjoy it.
Welcome to April and an album that was very hard to get my hands on. In-fact there was only one place on the entire internet where I could order it; and it didn’t go to print for another 4 months after the digital release. I need to highlight that this is becoming very common within Hip Hop; digital only albums which has resulted in us meeting some really good albums…. I digress…..
Rapsody has been making waves within not only Hip Hop but also the music industry in general over the last 5 years. Backed by super producer 9th Wonder’s Jamla Team and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Records, Rapsody is hands down one of the hot commodities in Hip Hop. I must admit I was a little late to the party with Rapsody. It wasn’t until I heard ‘Power’ from her last album that I started to pay attention. Since then she has appeared on many of my favourite songs over the last 18 months often stealing songs where she guest appears. Why do I like her? She’s an MC’s MC. She moulds her deep southern routes with impressive word play and honesty.
The concept of her latest effort ‘Eve’ is a nod to 16 of her female heroes which is firstly highlighted in the song titles and also lyrically throughout. Now, that being said, as a middle aged white male this is obviously right in my wheel house. Joking aside this album is banging!
Rapsody starts the album with ‘Nina’, such a statement song. Lyrically she goes in straight away, and really sets the pace for the album. Throughout the song and throughout the album Rapsody touches on personal experience and her view on being a black female not only the music industry but more so in present day America. Track by track Rapsody winds through her latest album changing the pace and tone track by track.
Joining rhapsody on the album there is a wide range of guests from new to old. Man of the moment J.Cole joins Rapsody along with the likes of GZA, Dangelo, Queen Latifah and Leikeli47 to name a few. Each guest well picked for each individual track.
I think there’s something for you all on this album. I think it’s accessible for Brother Guy, it’s got pure hip hop for Brother Joey and lyrically it will keep Brother David on his toes. As I’m introducing you to this album I’m going to avoid my personal highlights as I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
I also need to stress that after this you need to take some time and visit ALL of her albums on Spotify as they’re pretty remarkable.
New year, new music. And this is a story of one song, that lead me to an album, and how something that simple can bring such reward. I have been aware of the gloriously named Holy Fuck for a while, from their pleasingly daft videos, their excellent remixes, and the fact that they REALLY sounded like they should be on DFA. Their music – four guys, a bit of a rotating cast of synths, guitars, drums and a bunch of hardware – felt like something I should really be into but never quite did.
Then I heard Luxe on 6Music (of course) and I realised they may have finally got into my head for good. Yes, it has Alexis Taylor of my fanboy crush Hot Chip on it, but it’s much more that it’s an incredible track. Because even his idiosyncratic vocals are only somewhere in the morass, distorted in feedback and muffled in the mid-range as the track first wobbles around an odd sub-bassline and crisp drums, piano stabs, teasing with its destination for way longer than it should be possible to do, before it falls into structure, and then emerges into the sunlight, a percussive cut of modern, shimmering pop music. It’s quite the opener, and that’s possibly the main criticism of the album: where do you go from there?
The answer is, more of the same. And it just about hangs on to get away with it. Because it’s mining some of the best things about that oft-overdone, tired indie-dance hybrid that I’ve heard in a while. And while there’s echoes of all sorts of things in there, it also sounds like their own sound. The title track has shades of LCD – a vein that runs through all their music’s DNA – but there’s a lot of the Reflektor-era James Murphy-reworked Arcade Fire in there too, all scuzzy, submerged vocals, heavy drums, bleepy leads and jangling guitars and ooh-wee-ooh chorus. Endless bucks the trend, much more a guitar track, which to me comes much closer to previous AOTM and personal favourite Hookworms, with its edging into psych-rock and almost operatic stylings.
And what Holy Fuck lack in a singular vocal frontman – think their own Murphy, or Taylor – they make up in clever use of layering, distortion and harmonies. Free Gloss nails this perfectly with its soaring chorus that blends vocals, feedback and guitars, complete with a rocking, solo that makes me want to go and jump around a little club (only to find out their Manchester gig is sold out). There’s elements of the Chemical Brothers too, with Moment’s relentless drum-driven intro, and No Error is a brave sub-3 minute funk-smeared wobbler. What they may lack in perfectly balanced songcraft, they make up for in sheer exuberance and brio – San Sebastian is an almost angry, shouty, 90s throwback that sounds a bit like a discarded Blur b-side from before they went twee and irritating, with nods to Tame Impala, while Ruby doesn’t let up the pace, flowering at the death with a lovely, unexpected melody that fades into the ether as the distorted chords disappear. I also find myself thinking about 2020 uber-release Caribou at more than one juncture. This is a good thing. Yet for all their jangly, energetic energy, there’s more nuance than you’d first think, and a few listens in, the album takes on a much more three-dimensional shape.
In fact, for a band who’ve been around for so long (fourteen years and five albums) I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to properly seek them out. Perhaps this album is a that much of a step up. Because it’s certainly a coherent whole, and refreshing that, at 41 minutes, there’s not much filler in here. Yes, everyone’s buying Caribou, but that’s almost a given it’ll be loved. This is much more of a gamble, and one I think that’s handsomely paid off.
Welcome to a new year and a new decade, brothers. After a month off and all of us caught up with last year’s excellent music, let’s start off with a look back – with the reissue of one of rock’s great lost albums.
“Underrated” is a word we’ve discussed before; it is, of course, too easily used and often described things that have not been that highly rated for a good reason. As a bit of a vinyl junkie, and an aficionado of all things 60s and 70s, many are the ‘underrated’ albums I’ve bought, only to find they languished in obscurity for a damn good reason.
So let’s start with a bit of background for Mr Clark. Founding member of The Byrds, he quickly became the band’s main songwriter, and wrote an astonishing number of their well-known songs (Eight Miles High, I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better, Set You Free This Time). I hadn’t quite realised what a creative driving force he’d been in the band – especially when you consider this is a band with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby in it. The band used to call him the ‘Hillbilly Shakespeare’, because of his incredible talent for mystical lyrics despite his humble background.
However, he didn’t stay in the band beyond the third album, partly because of a chronic fear of flying, and partly because the rest of the band were pissed off that he earned more because of the songwriting royalties.
I really like the Byrds, always have, and as a Beatles nut, I’m hugely aware of their influence on the band – it was the Byrds jangling 12 string Rickenbacker that got Harrison to pick up one of his own and start adding it to the Beatles sound – which you can clearly here from Rubber Soul onwards. But I wouldn’t say I *listen* to the Byrds that much. Like The Beach Boys, I hugely admire what they did, but I don’t check in with them much.
Like a lot of the counter-cultural American rock artists of that era, Clark’s solo work after The Byrds showed him flirting quite heavily with country rock, particularly with his Dillard & Clark albums with bluegrass guitarist Doug Dillard. It’s pleasant enough stuff, but Gram Parsons, another Byrds alumni, was doing this stuff so much better.
All of this is a way of saying – Clark was obviously an insanely prodigious talent, but once he left The Byrds, there was no suggestion he was about to do anything that groundbreaking in his musical career.
It’s 1974. Clark has briefly rejoined a reformed Byrds, and the resulting album impresses mega-producer David Geffen enough to sign him to Asylum Records. This is the hippest, hottest label in the US at the time – home to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and The Eagles. Geffen gives Clark a pretty whopping budget to go and make the album of his dreams….
What first hits you about the album is its ambition. Wikipedia helpfully describes this as “country rock, folk, gospel, soul and choral music with poetic, mystical lyrics”. It’s fucking extraordinary. Just listen to Strength of Strings alone. It’s a masterpiece:
(Eagle eared listeners of a certain age might recognised this as covered by This Mortal Coil on one of their albums. Perhaps it’s no coincidenc that it’s their label, 4AD, that put out this reissue.)
The other thing about No Other is that it also kind of sounds like everything – and then you remember that the ‘everything’ you’re thinking of came AFTER this record. Fleetwood Mac and Rumours in particular owe an enormous debt to the freewheeling genre-hopping of this album, as does some Dylan mid to late 70s output. As for the millennial era, this albums has clearly been a huge influence to a million bands, from Grizzly Bear (who’ve covered No Other songs live) to Arcade Fire to The National to every other flipping American indie band who’ve ever flirted with Americana.
So why is it so underrated? Why wasn’t it sitting next to Rumours in your parents’ record collection? Well, when Geffen heard what Clark delivered him, he lacked the vision to understand it. He thought it was a piece of shit, and berated Clark both privately and publicly, then spent nothing promoting it. That, along with frankly bizarre 1920s looking cover that gives no hint of what was inside, meant that Gene Clark’s incredible album bombed.
He never recovered from the devastating disappointment, and fell into the depressingly familiar cycle of drugs and addiction, and though he staggered on through the 80s, he never made an album of this stature again. Addiction eventually took his life aged only 46, in 1991.
What he has left is an album that can genuinely stand shoulder to shoulder to much of the greatest rock music of the era. And you can hear in that plaintive voice that he is delivering the album of his life. It is a tragedy too often told in the music industry that an artist has die before their work is appreciated. It’s never truer than with Gene Clark and No Other. Let’s at least be grateful that the ‘Hillbilly Shakespeare’ got to make his masterpiece.
I genuinely don’t really know where to start with this one. First, I guess I should start with an apology. I know what it feels like to have an AOTM chosen that you know will be an effort for you. David, I am sorry. However, I have not chosen this because I am a huge Nick Cave fan. I have a passing knowledge of his music acquired some from of my previous (intense but failed) relationships. I have only ever bought one other Nick Cave album, Dig, Lazarus Dig from 2008. Bought on the strength of reviews, loved at the time but rarely played since.
What I do love about Nick Cave is his undeniably prolific creative output. I think this is his 17th studio album with Bad Seeds, add to that Grinderman and other side projects, soundtracks, screen plays, acting roles, exhibitions etc. This can be seen as self indulgent or it can be viewed more favourably as an endless stream of creativity. A stream that stopped a couple of years ago.
I don’t read too much music press if I am honest. I didn’t know about the loss of his teenage Son Arthur until the release of Ghosteen. I approached the album with some trepidation. I didn’t know what to expect and listened mostly without reading reviews in any detail. When you listen you are going to have to make a decision to give this a go or not. I hope you go with it. What you will find is a double album (double sorry David). The 2nd album contains two 12 minute songs (triple sorry David). As AOTM ‘asks’ go, this is a big one.
What first struck me is the ‘soundscape’. I never know if ‘soundscape’ is the right word. If it were a film it would be the ‘mise en scene’ so what ever the music equivalent of that is, that’s what I mean. Rich textured, chesty, vibrating analogue synths, strings, choral, gospel tinged backing vocals, piano’s and that voice. No matter what you think of Nick Cave, his voice is fucking incredible. It feels like his career to date, he’s been practicing to sing these lyrics and these songs. The first CD/side of the album is formed of 3-6 minute, beautiful and relatively conventional tracks. The 2nd and 3rd tracks, ‘Bright Horses’ and ‘Waiting for You’ are undeniably beautiful ballads. I think they will act as ‘anchor’ tracks that you will find yourself falling for on repeated listens. They are the most conventional and identifiable tracks and feature some achingly beautiful lyrics.
‘He’s the little white shape dancing at the end of the hall / the wish that time couldn’t dissolve’
And for me, this line, is a beautiful example of what I love about this album. ‘Arthur’ is never named. The word ‘death’ never appears. Neither does ‘grief’. Nor ‘loss’. There is close to no use of the past tense. The album revolves around the positivity and hope of the present and future tenses.
This album is not about loss. It is about permanence.
It is about the power of love and of memory. It makes me feel that there can be beauty found in the deepest tragedy which somehow makes me feel more connected with the things that I love the most.
Before Sammy was born we called him ‘Wolfgang’ it stuck so much we considered it for real. It feels like ‘Ghosteen’ is used in a similar manner by the Cave family on the other side of the life continuum. ‘There is nothing wrong with loving something that you can’t hold in your hand’
Back to the ‘ask’ – David, CD 2 will be a challenge for you. I’ll just call that now. I do urge you to give it a go though. I have these tracks play continuously CD1 and CD2 without interruption and feel this is the best experience. Nick Cave talks about the CD2’s tracks being the ‘parent’ tracks, they were written first and spawned the ‘children’, the tracks found on CD1. This only really makes sense when you become deeply familiar with the music. I hope this is somewhere that you get with this beautiful music.
‘I am beside you, look for me’