Week 37: The Queen is Dead

I was too young to ‘get’ The Smiths at the time. I have a dim memory of being sat in the living room, watching Top of the Pops or some similar such programme, and getting the impression from the presenters that they were meant to be really special, and just finding them baffling. But then The Smiths were not really aiming to impress nine year olds…

Moving forward nearly ten years, a friend recorded me a C90 with The Queen is Dead and Meat Is Murder. Though The Queen is Dead was only ten years old (if that) at the time, I thought of it as a relic from another time. The most famous album by a band whom it appeared were regarded as legendary but some of the older hacks writing for the weekly music press that I read at the time. But a historical curiosity – something I knew was meant to be ‘significant’ but not really of the time. Which is strange, because so much of the Britpop of the time was ripping off elements of the Smiths – whether it be Gene’s vocalist or pretty much everything about Pulp.

Anyway, the sheer familiarity of this record when I played it this week suggests I must have listened to it quite a bit at the time. And yet, I can’t say that it was ever one of my favourite records. I know that a lot of 17 year olds are supposed to have felt like The Smiths and Morrissey were speaking to them personally, that they were a kind of voice of a generation. But I was not one of those 17 year olds. Maybe it was just that I was a grimfaced humourless bastard of a teenager, but I think its mostly because I just didn’t identify with Morrissey.

Talking of which… It’s hard to write about The Smiths without expressing a view, one way or the other, on their outspoken singer. If you were to draw a line between Oscar Wilde and Adrian Mole, there’s no doubt that Morrissey would sit somewhere on it. But quite where, I guess, depends on your personal prejudices. I resisted the temptation to write that line as ‘he clearly thought of himself as a latter-day Oscar Wilde. He was more a re-imagining of Adrian Mole as a pop star’ because while it was a tempting way to start the piece, I don’t think it’s quite true. It’s to miss the edge of comedy running through the Smiths. That Morrissey the miserablist is a joke that you’re invited in on:

So I broke into the palace

With a sponge and a rusty spanner/

She said “Eh, I know you and you cannot sing”/

I said “That’s nothing, you should hear me play piano”.

But over time, after the Smiths, it seems that the Adrian Mole in him came to dominate. Maybe its just that his is an act he’s found harder to pull off the older he’s got, though. It’s hard to listen to The Queen is Dead or Frankly, Mr Shankly and imagine someone so devoid of perspective, so self-important, as latter-day Morrissey. The man who speaks highly of Nigel Farage and suggests that meat farming is worse than the holocaust. Who insists that Penguin publish his autobiography under their Penguin Classic imprint. Did he play the role too long, become his own caricature? To quote Kurt Vonnegut, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

But to become too obssessed with the Morrissey question is to overlook the fact that its the songs that make this album. If Johnny Marr and Morrissey had never met, would he be anything more than a minor footnote in musical history? A singer who could give a good quote for the weekly music press, backed by four anonymous Sleeperblokes. If Marr had not been in The Smiths, would Morrissey ever have been any more than a precursor to Louise Wener? Actually, that’s being a little unfair on the rhythm section. There’s more going on here than there was on that Sleeper album I can’t remember the name of and can’t quite be bothered looking up. For the most part, they’re just unobtrusive and making sure they don’t get in the way of Morrissey and Marr, but the drums at the beginning of The Queen is Dead are great.

Actually, one of the things that struck me going back to the record is how much I lost listening to it on a rather poorly recorded cassette. Quite possibly it was a copy of a copy of a copy. Or maybe it’s more to the credit of whoever did the re-mastering of the version that is available on Spotify. But any which way, I just don’t remember it sounding this good. The guitar jam in the last minute or so of The Queen is Dead that appears to anticipate that other big Manchester band of the period, The Stone Roses, the fade out an in of album closing Some girls are bigger than others. Come to that, Steven Patrick’s vocals on Frankly, Mr Shankly, which just ooze disdain:

Frankly, Mr Shankly, since you ask/

You are a flatulent pain is the ass”

And the coda to The Boy With a Thorn In His Side is beautiful, and there’s something about the weird childlike backing vocals on Bigmouth that I don’t think I’d really heard before.

What stops this being a great, rather than merely a good album, in my books, is that it is just not consistently good. There is filler. I could happily live without I Know Its Over and Never Had No One Ever just sounds dreary. Where Morrissey’s miserablist act just becomes, well, a bit miserable. I think I’d probably rather listen to a Best Of compilation. Well, I don’t care how many ‘best album’ polls it might have topped but it’s not in my top ten.

Highlights: The Queen is Dead, Frankly Mr Shankly, Bigmouth

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Week 36: The Greatest

Another album which takes me back to a specific time in my life, Cat Power’s The Greatest was a frequent soundtrack on the last of several occasions on which I’d taken up running. The effects of what turned out to be multiple sclerosis had made me too much of a liability playing ultimate frisbee and I went through a phase of doing laps of the Meadows. The trouble with running is that it’s a bit dull – it takes too long for the scenery to change. Free exercise tip: cycling’s better. You cover more miles, the scenery changes, and if your running gait is compromised by a recalcitrant nervous system, it doesn’t wreck your knees.

Listening to it again, it doesn’t sound much like running music, but I wasn’t much of a runner Or at least, by my late 20s, in the middle of an MS relapse, I wasn’t much of a runner . At 13 I was the fastest distance runner in my class at school and tried out for the county championships – whereupon I discovered the meaning of the phrase ‘big fish in a small pool’ and realised that things are a bit different when everyone was fastest in their class.

Anyway, to return to the subject in hand, Cat Power’s The Greatest is a kind of lolloping relaxed indie blues. It opens with the title track, The Greatest with its repeated refrain ‘once I wanted to be the greatest’ which has something of a melancholy earworm quality. It is tempting to read something autobiographical into it. The sound of someone with six albums behind her and a modicum of Radio 6 indie success (I don’t recall whether Pitchfork was a thing back then, but it’s the kind of record I could imagine them being fond of), but who nonetheless has come to realise that if it was platinum records and stadium success she was looking for (and I’m not sure that she necessarily ever was) or, for that matter, recording an obscure but critically acclaimed all-time classic that nobody buys but that famous musicians later list on their Baker’s Dozen at The Quietus.


While we’re on the subject of autobiographical songs, Power’s struggles with alcoholism are well enough documented, and Lived In Bars for all the world like someone with a stinking hangover recounting not so much a wild night as a lifetime of drunkenness – “Lived in bars and danced on tables/ Hotels, trains and ships that sail/ We swim with sharks/ And fly with aeroplanes out of here ” In someone else’s hands, it might sound obvious and clumsy, but Power has the voice to pull it off. She manages to sound tired and lugubrious without ever coming across as lazy. She hits the notes. Another song which her voice and song-writing skills cover for lyrical inanity is Moon. “The moon is not only beautiful/ It’s so far away The moon is not only ice-cold/ It is here to stay.”

It does rather benefit from the extra instrumentation – the horns and organ on album closing Love and Communication (the closest thing on the record to an entirely conventional indie-rock song, with just touch more distortion on the electric guitar than elsewhere on the record) , the backing singers on The Greatest (actually, I looked up the album credits, and there aren’t any. I can only assume that Cat Power is recording and multi-tracking herself to create an effect poised somewhere between Memphis and Motown), and the 1920s lounge piano that dominates After it all.

The weakest moments were the rather stripped back Hate (featuring a nod to Nirvana with its refrain of ‘I hate myself and want to die‘) the over-long Willie, an outlier on a record where the songs do not otherwise outstay their welcome, and the repetitive and unimaginative Where is my love. But even they are not terrible – not tracks that had me reaching for the skip button.

For all that it’s not going to change anyone’s life – ok, maybe it will, or it did, but not mine – this is a good record, one I was happy to be reacquainted with. Maybe not my first choice if I was going to go back to ‘my record collection circa 2007 – that would probably be Thea Gilmore’s Rules for Jokers but probably rather this than a lot of other things.  It didn’t make me want to go out and buy new running shoes though.

Highlights: The Greatest, Moon, Love and Communication

Week Thirty Five: Dub Side of the Moon

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m something of a collector of unlikely cover versions. Not boring melismatic takes on pop classics performed by X-Factor contestants, nor overly reverent note-for-note copies by bands worshipping their childhood idols. But Richard Thompson giving us his take on Oops I Did It Again, La Maison Tellier reimagining Killing In the Name as a blues-folk song, Tori Amos showing us what Smells Like Teen Spirit sounds like on the piano, or Hugo doing 99 Problems in the style of Steve Earle? Now I’m in. Oh, and if anyone can find a recording of Sleeping States’ version of Throwing Muses’ Call Me, please let me know where…
This curiosity had led me to Easy Star All Stars before, but it was their version of Radiohead’s OK Computer, Radiodread, that I used to play in the kitchen. If OK Computer was the Dark Side of The Moon on the 1990s (and isn’t No Surprises effectively a song-length rewrite of a single line from Time: “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”) then I suppose it should come as no surprise to me that they had earlier put together a reggae version of the Pink Floyd record, but I think it had slipped my attention.

I wonder if the experience of listening to this record would have been different if I were as intimately familiar with Dark Side of the Moon as with OK Computer. As it is, it’s a record I didn’t stumble on until I was in my mid-20s, and while I remember being struck by Time when I heard it for the first time it’s not a record I played to death. So if the Easy Star All Stars get the mood of a song ‘wrong’ I’m not going to notice it in the same way. And Dark Side of the Moon, while hardly three-chord child’s play music, is not quite as overwhelmingly musically complicated as OK Computer – there’s nothing on it that’s quite as difficult to arrange as the seven minutes of Paranoid Android.

Opening track Breathe actually sounds much as I remember it, in a way that makes me wonder if it secretly began life as a reggae track. In places, I wonder if this album might have worked better if they hadn’t stuck so closely to the sound of the original record. One of the best moments for me was On the Run, which rather than sounding like a reggae song, brought back memories of late 90s drum and bass, or at least the kind of late 90s drum and bass that got daytime radio play. While I can’t pretend to really understand actual drum and bass music, a drum and bass track by a reggae bank covering a Pink Floyd song? That I can get on board with.

On the other hand, their version of Time just doesn’t grab me. I sort of appreciate adding in the crowing cockerel and the alarm clock noise to the ticking clocks at the beginning of the song. But something about the slow, relaxed pace of their version of the song makes me think of it not so much as a tribute but as a parody. On the other hand, the other really well known track on the album, Money works really rather well. Maybe because it’s easier to imagine it as a reggae song in the first place, that while the sense of time passing by too quickly, of wondering where it’s gone and why I haven’t achieved anything with it, feels like a very first world problem, money problems are universal.

Listening to this the thought occurs that prog rock and reggae have more in common from a musical perspective than you might think – that it makes sense to think of this as a record that straddles the the two genres, rather than simply being a ‘reggae version of a prog album’. Now, this comes from someone whose knowledge of reggae is, um, limited (mostly to hearing Lee Scratch Perry records being played very loudly from the terrace two doors down from me when I was sixteen and hearing people playing Bob Marley compilations). After all, both are taking the guitar/drums/bass/vocals format of rock music and adding complexity and texture. Songs like Us and Them and The Great Gig In The Sky, in particular, sound like they’re straddling a line between prog and reggae, keeping one foot in each camp.

I’m not sure that I loved this record, but it’s pleasant background listening. I can imagine going back to it sometime in preference to Radiodread. Because a part of the appeal is simply in the novelty, and it’s still rather new to me.

A footnote: In the course of writing this, I discovered that about seven years ago, they released a re-mix album, Dubber Side of the Moon and for me at least, it was the more bass heavy, droney versions of the songs on this record that worked best. In particular, the rather sinister sounding Alchemist remix of Money and the playful electronica of the Kalbata remix of Any Colour You Like.

Highlights: Breathe, Money, The Great Gig in the Sky

 

Week Thirty Four: Sunday In The Park With George

My first thought was: ‘Oh no, not a musical. I hate musicals.’ But my inner devil’s advocate, never particularly slow off the mark, was soon popping up to make the counter-argument:

“But you used to love Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds when you were younger…”

“No. no. That’s not a musical. That’s a rock opera…”

“And the difference between a rock opera and a musical is…”

“Ummm….”

“Never mind. But what about the Little Shop of Horrors?”

“That was just because I was bored on a Sunday afternoon. It was raining. I was thirteen. And I really liked Day of the Triffids.”

“But it was a musical. You enjoyed it.”

“I suppose so…”

“And wasn’t Once More With Feeling one of your favourite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”

“Ah, but that’s different. People weren’t bursting into song for the sake of it. There was actually a reason for it…”

“So your problem with musicals is that people are singing for no good reason?”

“Well, people don’t do they?”

“They do in musicals”

“That’s not the point. It’s just a rubbish form of story-telling”

“So you’re saying you would have liked Sweeney Todd more if it hadn’t been for the singing?”

“Now you mention it…”

“Don’t be stupid. They’re singing because they’re in a musical. Same as if they were making a pop record. Now get on with this week’s album.”

“Ok, ok, I’m on it…”

So I’ve got this difficult relationship with musicals. Although listening to Sunday In The Park With George, I wondered if some of my dislike is specifically of musical films and theatres, that when the singing is not interrupting a spoken-word film or play, my hackles are not raised in the same way.

Instead, listening to this, I wonder if my real barrier to appreciating it is that I struggle to make out exactly what the characters are actually saying. I’ve listened to it three or four times, but if you asked me what it was about, I’d struggle to say beyond “Well, there’s this painter called George. And there’s his life model, can’t remember her name. And he’s a bit obsessed with his work. And I don’t think he payus her much attention. And that’s about it.” Because my hearing, or specifically my ability to discern individual words, isn’t great. The problem is not with the work itself, but with the limited mental and aural capacities of this listener…
So what follows are a series of dotted observations (think of it as a bad pointillist painting that doesn’t form any kind of meaningful image):

Firstly, is this typical of Steven Sondheim’s work? I’m not really familiar with it, what with my musicalphobia, but it does seem a peculiar blend of quite populist, crowd pleasing music and an almost wilfully obscure (at least to this Philistine) subject matter. I don’t think I’d ever heard of Georges Seurat before, far less anything about the story of his life. It seems a strange choice

And another thing. Jenna Russell, who plays Dot (I looked it up on wikipedia) has great range as a singer. She can sound like she’s bashing out a showtune on the opening Sunday in the Park with George but rein it in and sound quite subtle on songs like Color and Light.

Secondly, that track, Color and Light sounds to me like it has elements of what classical music in the 20th century could have sounded like if it hadn’t vanished up a dead end marked ‘experimentation’. But somehow there is simply no way that a big choral song like It’s Hot Up Here can help but remind me of the hell of school choirs, and I just don’t think I will ever be able to learn to stop worrying and love really big showtunes.

On the other hand, I could have really done with more of whoever is singing on Children and Art. She puts me more than a little in mind of Joanna Newsom. And now I think about it, songs like Monkey and Bear are not a million miles away from this kind of musical story-telling tradition.

It is becoming a bit of a recurring theme in this project that I remark at the end that I can appreciate on a technical level what the artist(s) are doing, but it’s not for me. That when the three or four listens are done, I don’t think it is a record I’m likely to revisit. But I’m afraid that’s pretty much where I’ve got to with my introduction to the work of Steven Sondheim.

Highlights: Color and Light, Children and Art, Putting it Together

Week Thirty Three – “The Best”

My younger self would probably have written a short review, dismissing this as music for people whose ears have fallen off.   Possibly without going to the trouble of actually listening to it first, and maybe adding a tasteless remark about the up-side of a war on the Korean peninsula. These days, I’m prepared to concede that the real problem is that I am simply not the target audience. That this music was not made for the enjoyment of British men on their 40th trip around the sun and I can hardly complain if I don’t get it. And the threat of war on the Korean peninsula just feels a bit too real to make jokes about…

That article would probably have begun with my asking whether K-Pop was a musical genre or a new breakfast cereal, but if I’m honest, I’m not actually entirely unfamiliar with it. My last three flatmates have all been keen players of a game called ‘Dance Dance Revolution’ which involves moving one’s hands and feet according to instructions that flash up on a screen to a soundtrack that, if the game’s designers weren’t asleep on the job, should result in the player dancing to  a rhythm more or less approximate that of the song. And given where this game took off, a lot of that music was Japanese and Korean pop. I’ve had a go at it myself. I’d like to claim it was the music that was putting me off, but truth be told I’m hopeless at anything requiring control of one’s limbs. And the music? Well, I doubt I would have much cared for it even it weren’t associated in my mind with losing at games…

So, trying to put all that to one side, what of Girls’ Generation? “The Best” is a compilation, and I assume, a representative sample of what they do. From the front cover of the album, it would appear that there are nine of them, but listening to the it, I’d be hard pressed to tell. Are there really nine vocalists in this group? I can make out at most maybe three distinct voices. There’s clearly a lot of auto-tune in play here, and I’m not sure it’s being used so much to compensate for the singers’ limitations, as to impose a kind of sonic uniformity on them. Am I reading too much into the fact that, to judge by the album covers that appear on Spotify, they all dress identically. Is this emblematic of some cultural difference between the Anglophone world and South Korea? A different attitude towards conformity and individuality? After all, rewinding 20 years or so, the Spice Girls all dressed differently – the marketing people behind them had created a distinct ‘persona’ for each of them. Maybe that’s present in Girls’ Generation too, but if it is, it’s subtle enough that it passes me by.

I was having a conversation not so long ago about whether Japan and Korea might be the two countries in the world which are truly first world democracies without being in any sense western. Places that are entirely modern and quiet alien. Yet listening to this record I’m struck by how familiar it sounds. It’s not even as different from Western pop music as the stuff that I heard blaring out of speakers in Istanbul. The opening track, in particular, GENIE, sounds much like a lot of Anglophone chart pop music (except the lyrics, or the parts that are sung in English, make even less sense. What on earth does “I’m genie for you boy” mean? Does not parse… It might have a lot to do with the fact that many of the song-writers are actually from Scandinavia or the US. Perhaps this is a kind of gateway drug…

It’s lower energy than I’d expected. There’s not quite so much of the frenetic ‘singing over a sped up 1980s arcade game soundtrack’ as I remember from Dance Dance Revolution. Or maybe it just feels slower because I’m not trying to place my feet on the right part of the dance mat at the right time. Time Machine is a ballad, half in English and half in Korean that sounds like a less irritating Celine Dion, which is um, damning with the faintest of praise. PAPARAZZI reminds me a little of 80s Madonna and finds the sweet-spot between the mawkishness of their slower songs and the headache inducing tendencies of their more EDM moments. Oh! is actually kind of fun. It might help that it’s mostly in Korean and so I can’t make out a word of what they are saying. Beep Beep is every bit as irritating as the song’s title hints that it might be. And by then, it’s mostly over. There’s too much of it, an hour of Hi-NRG songs that all sound very similar, and I can’t say I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the ninth circle of hell that I’d been fearing.

So it’s not as awful as I thought it might be. It’s really just a chart pop record sung partly in Korean. Having stuck to the RAMalbumclub rule of listening to it all the way through three times, though not Alex Massie’s variant of listening sober, drunk and hung over (I think ‘drunk’ would probably be best, while ‘hung over’ would be a downright painful experience) , I can’t see any reason it ever need trouble my ears again. But they haven’t actually fallen off in protest…

Highlights: I’m struggling a bit here. Um, Oh!, perhaps. And maybe Mr.Mr… But you may as well ask me about my favourite ballets or uses for broccoli. I’m off to listen to the new War on Drugs tracks on Spotify. I’m predictable, aren’t I…

Week 32: Home Thoughts From Abroad

If I rule out Alvin Lucier on the grounds that I am Sitting in a Room is not really music, then Clifford T Ward is, I think the first artist that has come up during this project whom I have not heard of at all. Yes, I wasn’t quite sure if Childish Gambino was a cartoon character and had confused Frank Ocean with Frank Turner, but I have to admit to feeling slightly discombobulated to find a 1970s singer-songwriter whose name means nothing at all to me.

A quick look on Wikipedia tells me that he had one hit of sorts in 1973 with Gaye, and then seems to have had a low-key but lengthy career, releasing his last record in the mid-1990s before dying in 2001 – so he is not someone who missed out on greater renown because he died young.

So was he unfairly forgotten?  If you’re a subscriber to Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, is there a universe not far from here where Ward is talked of alongside Nick Drake, or, failing that, at least maybe Cat Stevens or Donovan? (tangent time:there is a musical connection here, Hugh Everett’s son, Mark Everett is the man behind Eels and wrote a really rather good book about his mentally absent father and his mentally ill sister, called Things the Grandchildren Should Know) Or was pop culture’s collective memory right to discard him? Was he just not that good?

First things first: Did this sound as terminally uncool in 1973 as it does, at least to my ears, now? There is something painfully earnest, and desperately provincial about it. Wikipedia informs me that, before his musical career, he worked for a while as an English teacher. Which goes to show that the past is a foreign country. It’s hard to imagine someone succeeding in the music business in their late 20s having first spent several years in teaching now (though maybe I’m wrong: Maybe Taylor Swift used to be a PE teacher and Stormzy taught maths.) But back in the 70s, Sting and Mark Knopfler both did it. As it happens, Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, was among Clifford Ward’s pupils.

There are a number of things that place this record in a particular place in time. The mid 1970s was probably about the last point in time when there were significant numbers of young women called Gaye to write songs about.  As 1973 really wasn’t so long after 1967, it’s hard to hear The Dubious Circus Company as anything other than a rather pale echo of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – although it deserves bonus points for the elephant noises. And somehow I can’t imagine anyone penning a line quite so mawkish as ‘Our love is just another broken down motor car. I need your help to get it back on the road. ‘ now.

Despite, or perhaps because, of his past as an English teacher He’s not much of a lyric writer – and nowhere is this more evidence than on Home Thoughts From Abroad. In name-checking Robert Browning and William Wordsworth (I’m more of a Robert Frost man myself) I can’t help but think he is drawing attention to his own shortcomings. Another of his pupils was Karl Hyde, whose Born Slippy is a great example of show don’t tell, an abstract stream of consciousness paean to a big night out on the town, that his teacher might have done well to learn from.

But the song-writing is, where the lyrics aren’t getting in the way, really rather good in places. Wherewithal is a real earworm, and its easy to imagine it on an early Belle and Sebastian album, save for the fact that Ward was actually a much better singer. Time, the Magician is a catchy pop song. It is when he attempts social commentary and humour, as on Crisis that things go  adrift (although I could have lived without his efforts to find works to rhyme with Gaye, too) Oh and godding. It might just be my personal prejudices, but religiosity in popular song rarely works well (see also my review of Coat of Many Colours) and The Traveller is a toe-curling excuse to hit the skip button.
Actually, as well as the Belle and Sebastian connection (I wonder whether Stuart Murdoch listened to Clifford Ward or whether they both just emerged, at different points, from the same tradition of British musical whimsy – I was going to say English whimsy and cite See Emily Play but I suspect Murdoch would object) it occurs to me that there’s a line that can be drawn between this album and the rather baroque, orchestral pop of Sufjan Stevens -a rare exception to my dislike for godding in popular song.

So, my conclusion: If this was the best he managed, then I’m not entirely surprised that he was forgotten. It’s not that, to pick a couple of 70s singer-songwriters I am aware of, that Donovan or Melanie were really any better, but more than while Home Thoughts… has a certain, limited charm, it doesn’t really stand out as being any better than a lot of other very similar music from the last forty or so years.

Highlights: Time, the Magician; Wherewithal

Week Thirty One: Ágætis byrjun

So what do I know about Sigur Rós? Icelandic.  Largely instrumental.  That they are very much the band of choice, or at least one of the bands of choice, for the people who decide on the accompanying music for documentaries on BBC4. I’ve listened to a couple of their other albums before, but Ágætis byrjun was entirely new to me.

After a very short introduction, called, appropriately enough, Intro, the first ‘proper’ song, Svefn-g-englar is  definitely familiar, to the point where I wondered if, despite thinking Ágætis byrjun was not one of the Sigur Rós records I’d heard, maybe it was lurking somewhere in my pile of CDs. More likely it was used as the soundtrack to something I can’t quite remember seeing on television. Listening to the rather otherworldly vocals, I found myself questioning my long-held assumption that the band’s singer was female, or perhaps that there were two different vocalists, one male and one female. But a quick look at Wikipedia confirmed that the band’s only singer is male and “known for his falsetto”. It is a mistake I’ve made in the other direction, being very surprised to discover that Wussy’s singer is a woman.

It’s followed by Staralfur. Here, the extensive use of piano and strings serve as a reminder that while the lazy comparison would be with post-rock bands like Mogwai or Explosions In The Sky, they are, to make use of a lazy metaphor I rather hate, a more organic sounding band (my grandfather, an industrial chemist by trade, was apparently very dismissive of the use of the term to describe food, pointing out that with the exception of table salt, all food is organic.) There’s still plenty use of distortion pedals and synthesizers, but there’s also quite extensive use of acoustic instruments that Mogwai would never contemplate.

Flugufrelsarinn is perhaps the closest the band come to sounding like a conventional widescreen indie rock band who just happen to sing in Icelandic, while Hjartao Hamast, once the early waves of feedback have passed, settles down into what might be intimate confessional lyrics but, as I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s singing, could equally easily be a man reading out a shopping list. Viðrar vel til loftárása (the title, apparently, translates as ‘Good weather for an airstrike) goes in the opposite direct, beginning as a slightly melancholy piano piece with a dollop of what sounds like pedal-steel, as if the song is a refugee from distant country-and-western wars and hasn’t been able to fully assimilate into its new surroundings, but over the course of its 10 minute running time, it goes all ‘epic movie soundtrack’ and ends with a slightly discordant string section.

Over at Mookbarks, Fiona was speculating that this might have sounded much more genuinely different back when it was released in 1999. Speaking as someone old enough to remember, I can only say ‘not if you spent your teenage years listening to the Cocteau Twins, it didn’t.’ Because more than Mogwai, more than Explosions in the Sky or Tortoise or Slint or any of that post-rock brigade, it’s the Cocteau Twins that Sigur Rós really remind me of. Where the post-rock crowd ditched vocals altogether, both the Cocteaus and Sigur Ros retain them, but use them principally as a textural instrument (although in Sigur Rós’ case, that is probably just a reflection of my complete ignorance of Icelandic). Cocteaus singer Liz Fraser is from up the road in Grangemouth, but from her vocals she really sounded like she could have been from anywhere. Both bands dabbled with glossolalia – though I have to admit that in Sigur Ros’ case, I would struggle to tell the songs in Icelandic apart from those sung in a made up language. Both appear to be aiming for a cinematic sound. If to my ears, the Cocteaus just sound better, I’d concede that there’s every possibility that this is simply because I heard that at a formative age, and not as incidental music to a nature documentary on BBC4.

Highlights: Svefn-g-englar, Olsen Olsen