It may seem like there’s always a nailed-on candidate for our albums of the month. But there’s all sorts of reasons that an album may not be chosen as AOTM. Way before we did the podcast, we were still having the same discussions and dilemmas. So why would it get derailed? Sometimes it’s as simple as the fact that we’ve already got it and have rinsed it before it could be chosen – Caribou’s Suddenly and Roisin Murphy’s Roisin Machine are both good examples of this last year – or sometimes there’s a veto from in the camp. Or it simply falls at the wrong time: your album’s released in March, you have June, and by the time your choice comes around, its old news.
I think we can all agree that should time be taken again for Roisin, we’d have chosen her over Sufjan 99 times out of 100. Hindsight is an easy out. But we loved it so much it sometimes feels like taking the less worn path (though Sufjan is hardly unlikely) is a better choice than choosing something everyone will love. Other times while one – or more – of us loves it, it’s pretty clear that it would be likely hated by the other. I know what I’ll be playing still in a year.
With Ep11 and April’s AOTM in question, this is a great example of that dilemma. @misterstory put me onto Menneskekollektivet by Lost Girls, a strange, ethereal collection of 5 tracks from Norwegians Jenny Hval and Havard Volden, that he brought to my attention as one of the 4 ‘new tracks’ up with Episode 10. 11 minutes of hypnotic music that’s part spoken word, part dancefloor chug, then in between meanders into the areas in between. I was half-captivated, half confused by it, but it definitely stuck in my head. And it pointed me to the album, which was just as off the wall, but just as beautiful. While it was in the mix for April, we also knew that it really wouldn’t be a ‘David’ album, and we weren’t sure it was a Nolan one either, and so it went to the cutting room floor. Which is odd as the album we chose – Genesis Owusu‘s Smiling With No Teeth – was just as ‘out there’ in many I(but different) ways. But it just seemed to be an album which would be a choice that would land with the four of us better. Having said that, we chose Macca, and look how that turned out for Ep7!
Going a bit deeper into the album than even Joey has so far, Love Lovers is probably the standout of the 5 tracks (total: 44 minutes for, yes, only five tracks). A tribal beat that morphs into techno, as Hval’s spoken words then wailing notes and Volden’s chords drive the melody, until it breaks out into an epic peak. Carried By Invisible Bodies also weaves around, its chords de- and re-tuned throughout, a sort of woozy, disorienting melody that I’m still not sure if I’d ever have the cojones to play out anywhere. It definitely skirts the fine line between musical genius and pretentiousness, and no doubt knows that. But the artist background of Hval (and this being considered an accessible counterpoint to her solo work!) makes this less of a surprise when you delve deeper.
We could probably do a whole series of albums that never quite made it to a chosen each month – we don’t by any means have just those 12 albums in our lives each year – but this one definitely stood out. For every choice there’s always one that ends up on the floor. If I had time again, I’d have chosen Everything Everything’s Reanimator because – no diss to Yves Tumor, my EP3 choice – I’m still playing it, all the time. In fact it’s turned into one of my favourite albums of the last 6 months. In music as in life, you live and learn.
It’s my turn for Album of the Month and as usual, I’ve not found my selection an easy choice. I’ve selected Ignorance by The Weather Station, the 5th full length album from 36 year old, Canadian Tamara Linderman. I wasn’t aware of her music before the single ‘Robber’ was released late in 2020. Her early albums fit neatly into the ‘singer / songwriter’ folk genre but with each successive release her sound develops in complexity and the band becomes bigger along with the sound. A journey that delivers ‘Ignorance’, which is hard to define by genre but it seems that many still refer to her as a folk artist. This feels like an old label that doesn’t fit this album. But on the other hand, does it really matter?
My hesitation in choosing this album was 100% down to the hype. Last month we discussed Arlo Park’s ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ a new, young artist from the UK managing the burden of expectation of being called ‘the voice of a generation’. The hype around ‘Ignorance’ is of a different kind; to come so early in 2021 but to be touted as a contender for ‘album of the year’. It’s a simple, undeniable fact that this changes your listening experience … at least it does for me. I vividly remember my first experience of this album. I had heard Robber, loved it and then saw an early review massively praising the album. I got on it straight away, and loved it. It was a 9/10 for me. I told the crew this was to be my Album of the Month. Can you tell there is a ‘but’ coming? But then, despite its luxuriant scope, scale and shockingly beautiful soundscape, I failed to connect to it emotionally. Which is odd as it ticks SO many of my boxes. The lyrical context and content being one of them. But it still failed to truly dent me emotionally. I found it a little cold and I stopped listening to it as a result.
So why have I chosen it? I’ve chosen it as I’ve gone on such a roller coaster with this album that I thought it would be an interesting choice for discussion with my friends who I know will have an opinion. I have connected more with this album over time. I think it demands close attention, it does sound best in headphones (I know, I know everything does) but I’d argue this is a different album in headphones. It’s so ‘pleasant’ on a surface level that it can be a perfect background music for life but I think due to the fragility or Tamara’s vocals and lyrics, a different level of appreciation can be achieved through a focused, concentrated listen.
So, on to the music? This a 40 minute, 10 track album. Hallelujah! Thank you Tamara. It is SO dense (I mean this in the ‘good way’) that overstepping the 10 track mark might have been problematic. There are a couple of 5 minute tracks but generally we’re in the 3-4 minute track mark … so this must be pop music right? I think the answer to that is ‘yes’ you could go ‘art pop’ if you wanted people to snigger behind your back but I am going with ‘pop music’ and I’m ok with that. ‘Side A’ (by which i mean tracks 1-6) is upbeat and rhythmically driven giving way to a more melancholic ‘Side B’. Regardless of the tone of the tracks there are tons of melodic, rhythmic and lyrical hooks. Let’s get into a few of them.
‘Robber’ … wow. What a way to open an album. There’s an albums worth of motifs, trills, frills, strings, woodwind and spiky yet intriguing ideas in one track (and of course we all know I love a big organ). It’s a surprisingly anxious, urgent and threatening track to start an album with and I think you could argue that it could have closed the album? It constantly threatens to veer off into jazz noise but never quite carries through on the threat.
The album then opens up into 9 more tracks that, while they rarely play with the oddness and complexity of ‘Robber’, there’s a hell of a lot going on. How many influences can you hear in this album? Are they deliberate? Stevie Nicks, Kate Bush, Springsteen (Atlantic / Tried to Tell You) and a host of other 80’s radio rock smeared with synths (I can genuinely hear shades of Dire Straits!) but then also the strings and hints of 80’s ‘sophisti-pop’ chucked in for good measure. David will love the disco-tinged-drive of ‘Parking Lot’ and I think we’ll all appreciate the magical backing vocals on ‘Loss’.
There is loads to love about this album; pop hooks with scope, scale, ambition and complexity. An artist playing with a wide sound palette and clearing enjoying the process and the results. I am still yet to fully connect with it emotionally but I can feel that this building slowly over time.
Some questions that I think might be interesting to discuss;
What is hell is this (and as always, does that even matter)?
How do hyperbolic critical reviews impact your experience of an album?
What influences do you hear in it?
What do you think might be preventing my emotional connection (reading a wide range of reviews – I am not the only one)
Whilst most of us are waiting for 2021 to show a flicker of light, you could argue that music hasn’t let us down so far. After kicking of the year off with Bicep’s ‘Isles’ February has delivered another treat; ‘Collaped In Sunbeams’, the debuit Album from Arlo Parks. For transparency, I wasn’t too sure about this album or how to approach it. The cynic in me was slightly concerned about the hype.
Much has already been written about the creation, but if you have missed the many articles here’s a top-line recap: Around a year ago Arlo Park embarked on writing her debut album as Covid hit. Instead of being whisked away to a glamorous recording studio in LA, New York or London Arlo and her writing partner hunkered down in a B&B in Hoxton and created much of this album as the world seemed to be falling apart. It seems that her focus could not be shaken and the results were fruitful.
As we all worked through 2020 we were treated with the first 5 tracks from the album; Eugine, Black Dog, Hurt, Green Eyes and Caroline. Black Dog, a chillingly honest song about her friends depression landed on many (including our) Top Ten year end lists for tracks of the year. As David pointed out in our 2020 year end podcast, there was a lot of expectation and hype around her album.
The album as a combined finished article is very approachable. From the spoken word intro into “Hurt’ Arlo quickly lets you into her world. Her honest lyrics are matched by her likeable vocals of the West London songstress. The pop sounding ‘Collapsed’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Caroline’ flow into each other and are pleasing on the ears whilst lyrically telling stories more in the vein of a poet than a pop star. She weaves stories into songs with ease, making you feel the album is closer to a conversation with a friend than a collection of songs. This is apparent as you move onto ‘Black Dog’, ‘Green Eyes’ and then ‘Just Go’ which feels like a summer jam on the outside and ever so familiar song about relationships to us all (at that age) when we think about our late teens and early 20’s.
We often speak on this blog and our podcast about album pace. I’d argue this album has been mapped very well. Some reviews have questioned ‘Violet’, and have suggested it perhaps is one of the albums weaker songs. I think the opposite. The Portishead-esk track reminds us not to rest on our laurels and arguably is a nod to some of her less predictable influences such as Radiohead. After a quick break from the expected you’re quickly pulled into the well known ‘Eugene’. It reminds me of Lily Allen. Not just for the vocal presentation and similar West London accents but also ability to welcome you into the story that Arlo tells and Allen previously did on some of her work. This for me carries through to ‘Bluish’ and ‘Porta 400’.
Like many debutant albums ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ oozes with vulnerability. It reminds me of so many conversations with friends at that time in my life. As a person in my 40’s I can relate to her as her songs remind me of so many things when I was a similar age to her. I think perhaps that’s the magic; her and the allowance into her world.
It’s hard to read any article that doesn’t focus on the age of Arlo Parks which I struggle with. Many have arguably written their best work at this age; though perhaps this is the point. Is Arlo Parks going to be one of the greats? There is little doubt that poetic lyrics and welcoming vocals are ahead of many of her peers in a similar age group.
The album is easy to listen to, and has been on constantly in our house. It flows nicely and doesn’t seem to offend any of our ears. I often catch my Hayley and the kids humming along.
Any hype that this album has received is well earned in my opinion. Will she be one of the greats? I truly hope she can carry on the trajectory she has started on. But she has a lifetime of songs still to write and in the meantime this album has a fair bit of tread on it for me. There are many miles left in it before I’ll be needing the next model.
Saying that I’m a bit of a Beatles fan is like saying the Pope is a bit of a Catholic. They have been the guiding musical lights of my life. I think The Beatles were a kind of miracle, the greatest creative expression of that burst of working class energy that blossomed in post war Britain. They didn’t just change the course of music, they changed the course of culture and society. I was 10 when Lennon was shot – I remember being really upset, but I also remember that no one else my age really knew who he was. By the time I was in my early teens, I was a subscriber to Beatles Monthly. This, at the time, did not make me cool. It made me square and weird. Everyone else was listening to Duran Duran. I once saved up weeks of paper round money to buy a brick from the original Cavern Club (they were being sold off for charity).
Now here I am decades later, and nothing has really changed. The Cavern brick is framed on my wall. My daughter is called Astrid, not just because we loved the name, but also because of Astrid Kircherr, the Hamburg photographer who was so influential in shaping the band’s look. I have a cat called Ringo. My house is groaning with Beatles nonsense. I vowed to stop buying stupid Beatles tat, but my friends still buy me stuff and honestly, it’s always welcome. Astrid got me a Beatles calendar for Xmas. Of course she did.
Paul was always my favourite Beatle. Partly, I think, when I was young, his songs were the most melodic and warm hearted and easy to engage with. But partly, also, I never really had any truck with the idea that Lennon was the artist and poet, and that Paul was just the tuneful cheesemonger of the band. It was obvious to me that McCartney was the most versatile Beatle. Pastoral ballad? Mother Nature’s Son. Musical hall? When I’m 64. A song about death and loneliness written when he was only 22? Eleanor Rigby. Howling rock n roll, Little Richard style? I’m Down. Giant pop chorus? Hey Jude. Song that literally gave birth to heavy metal? Helter Skelter. Any real Beatles fan could see he was the engine of the band as well as one of its two geniuses. Sgt Pepper? Paul’s idea. Side 2 of Abbey Road? Paul put that together. It’s always a little secret when you meet another big Beatles fan – you both immediately check that you both agree Paul is your favourite Beatle. It nearly always is. John is for the part-timers.
Solo Paul was a different matter. As a teen, I lapped up the albums of the time – Tug of War, Pipes of Peace, and plenty of the Wings stuff, but in all honesty, a lot of those albums have not aged well. One or two good tunes aside, there is a lot of guff on them, and it’s the kind of guff that has haunted his reputation ever since 1970. It was telling that when we all started listening to this new album, that Joey was surprised to hear McCartney rocking out – had he been listening to Queens of the Stone Age, Joey asked? The answer, is, of course, is that it’s the other way round, but I also get that to the casual listener, McCartney’s reputation as a rocker has been lost under decades of Mull of Kintyre and Ebony and Ivory and Frog Chorus.
So yes, his solo work has certainly been a mixed bag. But there are real gems in there. Ram is, I think, his best album and one of the best solo Beatles albums. But McCartney I and II have both got really special places in my heart. They’re both totally solo efforts, with McCartney playing every instrument – as we find him doing here on III. McCartney I is a homespun and folky joy, and McCartney II is genuinely nuts – experimental and electronic and a great reminder that Macca has been a great boundary pusher throughout his life.
I’d heard rumours recently that this new album was a genuine revelation, but I was very, very nervous of suggesting McC III as our album of the month. Macca means too much to me, and I know he means an awful lot less to the rest of you, and means nothing at all to at least one of you! In all honesty, I was worried that it’d be ok but nothing more, and we’d spend the podcast ripping apart my greatest musical idol. Maybe that is what will happen, I don’t know. But this album has floored me. I never ever expected Macca to ever make another song that I really cared about, and certainly not (nearly) a whole album of them. I have listened to this album constantly since it came out. It has wrapped its arms around me and it’s now going to be part of my life forever. It’s the greatest musical surprise of the year.
So let’s talk about what works for me. Firstly, he’s relaxed and he’s himself and it just sounds honest and joyful. I’ve struggled even with the lauded albums of the last 20 years (Egypt Station, Chaos and Creation…) – to me, they sound like a shit hot producer has overproduced some slightly workaday McCartney material. None of them have really stayed with me. I think the lack of producer has completely liberated him. He didn’t even know he was making an album. You can literally hear him in the studio messing around on these songs. And bloody hell, what a musician he is – the drumming on the opening jam! The octave harmonies on Find My Way (and the harpsichord), the crunching guitars on Slidin, the crazy loops of vocals on Deep Deep Feeling.
What I also love is that he’s showing his full range – folk ballad (When Winter Comes), hard rockers (Lavatory Lil, Slidin’), pop song genius (Find My Way), slow tempo melody (Pretty Boys), hell even a song that – as Joey points out – sound like it has a Mac Miller RnB vibe (Deep Down). It’s an extraordinary range he’s showing. The album’s centrepiece, Deep Deep Feeling, goes even further, an astonishing 8 minute delve into tape loops, gorgeous soulful vocal experiments that feels raw and beautiful, and for me, justifies every second of its length. I do wonder if that song might divide opinion big time – it’ll be interesting to discuss.
The other surprising strength is his voice. I remember hearing him sing at the 2012 Olympics and being sad that his voice was clearly ‘going’. Well, he’s no longer trying to hide that. He’s 78. He’s an old man, and his voice sounds gruff and aged, but to me, at least, it’s an integral part of the album’s charm. It was when I was listening to Women & Wives that it hit me – this is very similar to the Johnny Cash albums he made at the end of his life with legendary Def Jam producer Rick Rubin. This is an old man wearing his age on his sleeve. You can hear it in the stoic lyrics of Pretty Boys – he was once one of those boys a long time ago. Not anymore.
Not everything works, let’s be really honest. His lyrics are a mixed bag, and I probably like them a lot more than the rest of you, but I can see that if you’re not digging all 8 minutes of Deep Deep Feeling, you might find them a bit cloying. The Kiss of Venus is a very ordinary song, and the one stinker on the album for me is Seize The Day – a naff sub-Beatles pub tune with bloody awful lyrics about being nice and something about eskimos. It’s a reminder that he’s never that far away from Mull of Kintyre if you’re not careful with Macca. But for me, that’s the only song I actively dislike. There is joy and musical interest to be found in every other tune, though I do also agree the opening jam could lose a minute or two.
I’m fully aware I’m writing as a fan of a man who has defined my life. I can’t imagine what this album feels like to a casual listener, or someone who’s not that bothered about The Beatles (also, what is WRONG with you?!). But I hope there is something in there for everyone, even if you don’t have quite the response I’ve had. Think this could be a really interesting discussion, anyway!
I wonder if this is his swan song. It certainly feels like a last race round the block – a chance for him to flex his musical muscles and remind everyone of his range. Or maybe, even better, this is just what Macca does when he’s locked down – write better songs than anyone else can. The comparison with Bowie’s Blackstar is interesting – obviously Blackstar is a much darker, existential record. That’s partly because Bowie was facing death and he knew it and that’s what he was writing about. But also, Bowie is a more existential soul. Macca is an optimist who believes that things are ‘getting better all the time’. Maybe this is what’s inside him at this age – a man who still wants to be there for you, who still delights in nature and the simple life, but also feels the pain of ageing and being in love. A lot of those kind of things aren’t very cool anymore, if they ever were, but I don’t think he cares about any of that now. He’s done everything. He’s written everything. He’s just the most famous musician in the whole world, jamming around in his studio for fun, and somehow out pops an incredibly coherent album, a last little musical present from the master. I couldn’t be happier about it.
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.
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.
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 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.