Week Thirty: The Planets

To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever really quite understood classical music. I’m part of that small minority who only listen to Radio 3 for the spoken word output (in particular, the fantastic Night Waves). It’s not like death metal or happy hardcore music, not something that makes me race for the off switch to get rid of this awful noise. Rather, for the most part, it ends up sounding to me like background music, I don’t really connect with it.

So this week has been a bit of a chance to test out whether that is because me and classical music are just like ships that pass in the night, or whether the problem is instead that I’ve just never given any particular piece of classical music the time it needs to grow on me. To be honest, while I did go through a phase of putting on Mozart’s string pieces as background when I was working, there are probably very few classical works I’ve listened to all the way through more than a couple of times.

It begins with the threatening, and indeed appropriately martial sounding Mars: the Bringer of War. Listening to this piece, I’m struck both by the thought that, given the time it was composed, it surely must be a reflection of the horrors of the First World War and by the possibly rather musically illiterate thought that this must have been at least an indirect influence on the heavy metal music that would follow half a century later. Because, for all that, if I were at a pub quiz and had to answer the question “in what century did Gustav Holtz compose the planets?” I’m not at all sure that I wouldn’t be a couple of hundred years out, this is, in the grand sweep of the history of classical music, actually quite recent. By the time it was first performed in November 1920, three of my grandparents had been born, and, let’s say, the release of the Beatles’ first LP was closer in time to the time this was composed than to the present day. I don’t doubt that someone who knows a great deal more about classical music than I do would be able to tell that there was no way that this had been composed in 1816, but I wouldn’t know.

The mood changes quite abruptly with Venus: the Bringer of Peace. For all that I prefer my classical music low key – with more strings and piano and less bombastic use of brass instruments, this piece just doesn’t really stick in my mind. Mercury: the Winger Messenger works better for me, though I’m afraid this is one of those not infrequent moments when I find myself struggling to find a way of using language to explain why. Jupiter: the Bringer of Jollity definitely sound familiar to me – I’m fairly sure that the piece, or at least the part that begins at around 3m 30s in, has been used on more than one occasion to soundtrack the annual Edinburgh Festival Fireworks Concert. Certainly it sounds like the kind of music that could form the backdrop to lots of pretty explosions in the sky.

Listening to this, I found myself wondering what followed it – where its influence can be heard in today’s music. Was it a dead end? Certainly it’s not easy to hear its influence in the classical music of the second half of the 21st century – the minimalism of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. On the other hand, perhaps its legacy is really to be heard in the scores written for big blockbuster films: if Holst had lived fifty years later, perhaps he’d have written the theme music for Star Wars or Jaws. Or perhaps not. Another tenuous connection I’m hearing is between this themed classical music and the orchestrally tinged story-telling of Godspeed You Black Emperor! – although F#A# seemed more interested in soundtracking an imaginary apocalypse than the ‘astrological’ characters of the planets. But maybe these are just the half-formed ideas of someone with little or no idea what he is talking about.

Highlights: Mars, the Bringer of War, Mercury, the Messenger

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Week Twenty Nine: Laundry Service

I’m not quite sure when it was that I last listened to a straight-up pop album in its entirety. Actually, that’s not true, my new flatmate is blasting Taylor Swift’s 1989 through the hi-fi system as I write this, and I’ve got used to hearing Lady Gaga and Ed Sheeran coming from the kitchen for much the same reason. But I’ve never entirely shaken off the prejudices I grew up with. Pop bands are not album bands. Chart pop music isn’t really for anyone over the age of 12. Most of it’s just machine-tooled rubbish. Et cetera, et cetera.

I think the last pop album I deliberately listened to all the way through might have been A-Ha’s 1986 sophomore effort, Scoundrel Days – and when I went back and revisited it, I couldn’t help thinking that even it doesn’t quite qualify: that it sounds like the work of an obscure electro-synth goth band who more or less accidentally fell into stardom by virtue of one single and a singer who appealed to teenage girls.

And the sum-total of my knowledge of Shakira?: Approximate contemporary of Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears; An elderly Gabriel Garcia Marquez had a thing for her and wrote a long piece in the Guardian about her (I wondered if this was a product of my imagination, but the internet more or less confirms my memory); Huge hit with Hips Don’t Lie (clavicles, on the other hand are sneaky, underhand buggers and not to be trusted.) And that’s about it, so this is a bit of a dive into unfamiliar territory, a record that, but for this project, I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me to give the time of day.

The opening track, Objection (Tango) reminds me a little of The Gotan Project, a Brazilian electronica influenced dance group I got into for a while, and in itself makes a pretty good case for more South American dance music in contemporary pop. As someone who was born with two left feet, the chances of my actually dancing the tango are pretty close to zero, but this song sort of makes the idea appealing.

It’s followed by Underneath Your Clothes which brings back memories of 80s girl-group the Bangles’ Eternal Flame. And if I’m prepared to overlook the cringeworthy lyrics – “Underneath your clothes, there’s an endless story” Which is either a bad metaphor or a worse tattoo – and the awkward fact that the best parts appear to have been pinched from another song, it’s really rather good in an 80s power ballad sort of a way – and right at the end, there’s just a hint of Tori Amos in her vocals.  Which wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

By the time I get to the third track, her breakthrough hit, Wherever, Whenever, I’m starting to think that I’ve mentally miscategorised Shakira. I’d had her filed alongside graduates of the Mickey Mouse Club, the Britneys and Katy Perries of this world, when actually she fits more neatly into the tradition of 80s adult-oriented rock. Pat Benatar without quite the vocal range, and a more ‘world music’ influenced sound. There are bits of this record that remind me more than a little of later-period U2. So perhaps this isn’t the first pure pop record I’ve sat down to listen to in thirty years for the simple reason that this isn’t quite what it is.

I wasn’t entirely surprised to discover that Glen Ballard (Alanis Morrisette’s songwriting partner) is amongst those with a writing credit on this record. And I was struck by the mischievous thought that Jagged Little Pill would have been a much less irritating record if it had been sung entirely in Spanish (although, in truth, give me Shakira’s generic power balladeer’s vocals over Alanis’s grating voice, too) All the same, I was much more taken with the Spanish versions of the album’s two biggest hits that are thrown in to round off the album, Suerte (Whenever, Wherever) and Te Aviso, Te Anuncio than with their English-language counterparts. Maybe it’s just because it helps persuade me that I’m not just listening to Roxette with a splash of Latin-American rhythm thrown in.  Que Me Quedes Tu is a really rather pretty ballad, and quite probably all the better for the fact I’ve no idea what she’s saying.  Whereas Fool ends up being a bit of an irritant precisely because I can make out the lyrics.

I expect it’s probably not a record I’m ever going to actively seek out again (though who knows, if on a whim I felt the urge to go back to Scoundrel Days, maybe when I’m in the old people’s home I’ll find myself suddenly wanting to hear Laundry Service) but on the other hand, I wouldn’t object if it came on in the background in the launderette, or wherever, whenever.

Highlights: Que Me Quedes Tu, Te Aviso, Te Anuncio (Tango), Underneath Your Clothes

Week Twenty Eight: St Jude

I think I might have seen the Courteeners live, about seven years ago at a festival, and the fact that I can’t say for sure says a lot about my relationship with this record.

I think it might just be an age thing. If I’d been 15, rather than 30, when this record had been released, I might have loved it. It does sound quite a lot like the Britpop records that I played to death in the mid 1990s, and haven’t really listened to since. As it is, this record, and indeed the live show at T in the Park in 2010, if I actually saw it, and am not confusing them with various other second-string acts I saw early in the afternoon, just didn’t really make any impact on me.

I’m not sure that it’s objectively any worse a record than I Should Coco by Supergrass, which I loved when it came out. No actually, I’m going to stick to my guns and insist that I Should Coco was a much better record. Scratch that: It’s probably better than Dodgy’s Homegrown though, which I enjoyed well enough back in the day. It’s just that twenty-plus years on, I’m not hearing anything that makes it stand out. And I’ve no idea how it won the Guardian’s inaugural debut album award in 2008. Surely there were better first albums that year? (There were: As far as I’m concerned, if you think this is better than For Emma, Forever Ago then your ears have fallen off.)

Despite the cover art and the band name that suggest otherwise, itis very much pitched at the more laddish end of indie rock – think somewhere between Oasis and Kasabian – and it does seem to check pretty much every cliché of that genre. Nonsense lyrics? There’s a line in “No You Didn’t, No You Don’t” which I heard as“We were in the garage doing cheese.” When I looked up the actual lyrics and found it was not cheese but keys, I can’t help thinking that what I heard was better. Is ‘doing keys’ some yoof argot of which I’m unaware? Or is he just saying whatever comes into his head. Big choruses with lots of wooahs and woahhs in them that you can imagine encouraging fist-pumping on football terraces? More than you can shake a stick at. A couple of slow ballads with a bit of finger-picked electric guitar? Check.

It’s ok, but for me at least, it’s nothing more than that. Only Aftershow and You’re Not Nineteen Forever really stood out from the generic indie mulch and stayed with me. His voice is less irritating than, say Liam Gallagher’s (actually, Liam Fray sounds a bit like my brother, which is perhaps no surprise as it turns out he’s from about six or seven stops along the same branch line to Manchester that I grew up living next to). But there’s really nothing here to distinguish them from hundreds of other very similar indie bands that get afternoon slots at festivals. A sort of Shed Seven de no jours.

My problem is that, having got into the whole indie guitar rock thing a quarter of a century ago, there’s not much now that sounds really different to me. That really makes me pay attention. Or as Spitting Image put it over twenty years ago

“Haven’t You Heard This Song Before?
Jesus, it’s hard to be original
with only 12 notes in all the world.”

Highlights: Aftershow, You’re Not Nineteen Forever

Week Twenty Seven: Let’s Get It On

Around the turn of the Millennium, I worked as the sole employee at a first-generation internet start-up company called Footle Limited. The idea behind the business had been to sell ‘online community software’ – to use the terminology of the time, and use a website which encouraged people to come together around shared interests as a sort of ‘shop window’ for that software. One of the features that the website had was the ability to post reviews of books, films and music (think a sort of Goodreads before its time, although as I recall, a very significant proportion of all the reviews were written by the rather odd internet phenomenon that was Harriet Klausner). Really, we were among probably lots of people who independently stumbled on the idea of social networking sites about five or ten years too early. And perhaps in another parallel universe, people are talking about how they have wasted a whole morning footling about on Footle, instead of frittering away their time on Facebook or Twitter. The business even had the right name. And we’d all be retired in our mid-thirties and wondering why the life of the super-rich isn’t quite as satisfying as we’d hoped. But anyway, it was not to be, so to get vaguely back on subject, one of the very first reviews that anyone ever posted to the site was of the film Some Like It Hot of which the reviewer observed

“It’s ok, but I’d rather watch a good modern colour movie.”

Since that time, of course, such reviews have become almost a genre in themselves. See for example this Tripadvisor review of Ben Nevis . And we can laugh, but there’s a part of me that has sympathy with that reviewer because sometimes one encounters a work that is generally regarded as an absolute classic of its genre and yet which leaves one sort of cold, and to which the honest reaction is “it’s ok, but I didn’t particularly like it”. And that’s how I feel about Let’s Get It On. On a purely technical level, I can hear that Marvin Gaye has a fantastic voice – range and subtlety that far exceeds most famous R&B and soul singers that I can think of. And while I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert, the musicianship sounds to me as though as it is from the very top drawer.

The thing is, that after having this record on in the background for four or five days, the title track aside, I can’t say that any of the songs have really stuck in my mind. I have this nagging suspicion that this record is much better than I realise, that the problem lies not with the music but with me. Listening to Please Stay (Don’t Go Away) it sounds very beautifully put together, but the moment it stops playing, the melody seems to slip my mind. And the strings on the next track If I Should Die Tonight a wonderfully lush, but again, it is something that seems to stay with me only for as long as the record is playing. Just as Fiona over at Mookbarks pondered a few weeks ago whether the folk music she loved was secretly racist in its yearning for a simpler (whiter?) past, there’s a part of me that wonders if on some level, I just don’t get black music. Is my taste in music subliminally racist? Or is it simply that the music that really grabs me, no matter how much I try – through exercises like this – to expose myself to a wider spectrum than my filter bubble would normally allow, will always be that which is influenced by, or derivative of, the folky and proggy I heard in my parents’ record collection as a small child, and the thrashier, more raw punk, grunge and indie guitar music of my teens. Because there’s a part of me that can’t help thinking that this record just sounds like superior quality elevator music. Or maybe the subtext of the record slips completely past me because, as I was told at the age of about sixteen, “the thing is, you are about as romantic as a stick.” That, title track aside, the musicianship may be great, but the song-writing just isn’t for me.

Except… Listening to this on Spotify, when you reach the end of the album, an algorithm immediately starts trying to pick other tracks that you might be interested in, and suddenly there’s a couple of song’s that start to grab me. The dance-funk of Midnight Lady, and the cinematic, and very 70s sounding Trouble Man. Maybe I’ve just chosen the wrong place to try to get my head around Marvin Gaye.

Week Twenty Six: Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

It must be a shade over twenty years ago that I first heard Mogwai; a track called New Paths to Helicon on Mark Radcliffe’s Graveyard Shift that made me (probably only metaphorically) sit up and take notice at a time of night when I would otherwise have been drifting off to sleep. At the time, it sounded quite unlike anything I’d heard before: a melding of the dynamic shifts between quiet and loud of hard rock and grunge with early 90s shoegaze music’s love of experimentation with effects pedals, to achieve a trance-like effect which I imagine must be what others must have got from rave music a few years earlier. At that time, I don’t think I’d ever heard the term ‘post-rock’, I’d certainly never encountered any Dirty Three or Tortoise, though I think, had he had the money to go investigating entire musical genres off the back of a single track on a late-night Radio 1 show, my eighteen year old self would have loved it

And sure enough, their first couple of albums, Young Team and Come On, Die Young were regularly on my headphones as a student on those nights when my inability to get started on anything more than 48 hours before it was due in saw me stuck in the South Bridge computer labs until 4 in the morning (I think I might have mentioned this before when I was reviewing Endtroducing a few weeks back). But in the intervening couple of decades, I can’t say I’d really given Mogwai’s continued existence much thought. A former manager was keen and lent me Mr Beast a few years back but, while I can’t say that I didn’t like it, I never felt particularly inclined to keep going back to it.

Listening to Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, I can’t help thinking that the problem with Mogwai is that they really only have one ‘trick’ up their sleeve, and there’s surely a limit to how many albums of it anyone can really need to hear. My few days’ acquaintance with the record certainly didn’t leave me with the vague irritation that, say Vampire Weekend did a couple of weeks ago, but I can’t say I really remember any of the songs. There’s nothing on here as brilliantly simple as Mogwai Fear Satan from their debut, or even Glasgow Mega-Snake from Mr Beast. I am hardly the first person to observe that this record sounds like the sound-track for a film that just doesn’t happen to exist (though to be fair, they’ve done a couple of actual soundtracks for film and television that does exist: Zidane is if nothing else, more interesting than the film it soundtracks, an art-piece which is simple a 90 minute football match where the camera remains focused on the French star for the entire game: maybe it’s of interest if you’re a football obsessive, or maybe even then, it simply goes to show that there’s a reason that’s not how football matches are usually televised. I’ve heard Les Revenants is really good, but have never found the time to watch it,)

Listening to Rano Pano, or Mexican Grand Prix, I couldn’t help thinking that what separates so-called post-rock music from shoegaze, the fact that it’s almost entirely instrumental, counts against it. It needs vocals, and not just the heavily synthesized vocal chants that are hidden in the mix of George Square Thatcher Death Party (Was there one? I was out of the country at the time, and was informed of her death by, appropriately enough, by an SNCF employee who had guessed my nationality from the clumsiness of my French and was telling people that the trains were on strike – which struck me as fitting way to mark the occasion.)  On the subject of which, writing entirely instrumental music does give the band a certain freedom to call their songs whatever the damned hell they like.  Hence Oh How The Dogs Stack Up (though it’s not an experiment I’m minded to try at home)

Last year a rather more cultured friend of mine who pays attention to the programme for the International Festival took me along to a show called Flit, a musical performance piece with a ‘band’ made up of, among others, Mogwai’s Dominic Aitchison, Martin Green from Lau and Becky Unthank on vocals. And it sounded great: I could happily listen to Becky Unthank singing over a Mogwai backing track all day. But I’m not sure that I really yet another collection of seven or eight minute instrumental rock tracks. Because when it comes to post-rock, I think Mogwai just don’t have the range, the willingness and ability to experiment, of the best work by, for example, Godspeed You Black Emperor!

Week Twenty Five: Coat Of Many Colors

I’ve always had this idea that Dolly Parton was more of a pantomime character than an actual, real living, breathing musician. As much as anything that has come up thus far in this project, it’s a record I’m fairly sure I would never otherwise have listened to. Dolly Parton is filed away under at least two different mental categories that would tend to put me off: country-and-western and what, for want of a better term, I can only call ‘showbiz tunes’.

I struggle to explain my prejudice against country-and-western as I like a lot of music that comes from the same roots as American country – anything from Low to Ryan Adams, through the War on Drugs, the Byrds and the more folk-tinged aspects of REM.. Of course, we prefer to call it Americana, or perhaps ‘roots music’ rather than ‘country and western’, but maybe there’s not so much more to it than that I can’t get past the Stetsons and the horses.

Over at Mookbarks, Fiona speculated about the difference between American Country and British folk music. My take on it, for what it’s worth (warning: oncoming sweeping generalisation approaching) is that the country tradition that Parton comes from, which is by no means the whole of country music – discovered on the Grand Old Opry in her late teens – is much closer to the light entertainment music-hall tradition in this country than our folk music traditions.

Take the title track, Coat of Many Colors: is it really that hard to imagine hearing something very similar, perhaps dressed up in more modern production values, being belted out a talent-show starlet on ITV on a Saturday night. Yes, being country music, it is inevitably also marinated in the specific time and place from which it came (I’ve never been there, but somehow I imagine the deep South being the sort of place where the sentiments of She Never Met a Man (She Didn’t Like) don’t sound quite so strange as they do to my ears) but this is fairly unashamedly big pop music.

But what of the music itself? Catching up with the Big Mouth podcast, earlier this week, the team were reviewing Glen Campbell’s final album, and one of the guests was moved to remark that the ‘farewell album’ can be made to work in country music because “it is the most mawkish musical genre”. And listening to, in particular, My Blue Tears and If I Lose My Mind, with their lachrymose pedal-steel guitar, the remark seemed fitting.

It may be no coincidence that to my mind the weakest tracks are those written by some-time collaborator Porter Wagoner. The Mystery of The Mystery is the low point. Now it may simply be that, as someone who thinks that while Richard Dawkins misses an awful lot of fine opportunities to keep his mouth shut, he’s basically right about the god malarkey, but this really does feature toe-curlingly awful (and slightly creepy) lyrics, set to an entirely forgettable tune.

“The mystery of the mystery must stay unknown
Only God can know and man must not see
Great minds have tried but they will not find
The answer to the mystery of the mystery.”

Maybe, maybe I’m being unfair about what is really just a song about the limits of human knowledge, as seen through the eyes of someone who grew up in the Church Of God.  But Edie Brickell put it much better.  Religion is a smile on a dog

But while spending a week with this record did for the most part confirm that my musical prejudices serve me reasonably well: it is, for the most part, not really my thing, there’s more than enough here to show that Parton has genuine ability as a song-writer. In particular, the further she gets away from the tropes of country and western music, the more interesting this record is. Early Morning Breeze is a slice of jazz-influenced folk that, whisper it, sounds like it could have been recorded on this side of the pond and helps me to understand why Laura Marling is an admirer. Here I Am goes easy on the pedal-steel and throws in more than a hint of gospel and soul music, the sound of Tennessee meeting Detroit.  And either of these: Parton the fey folk-singer or the full-throated soul diva, sound more interesting than this record.

 

Highlights: Early Morning Breeze, Here I Am

Week Twenty Four: Call The Doctor

First things first. Turns out it’s Sleater-Kinney as in rhymes with slater, not as in rhymes with ‘sleeter’ (not sure what one of those would be: someone who provides suboptimal snow?). So I’ve been pronouncing their name wrongly for the last fifteen or so years. And why is that? Because for all that I knew who they were, and indeed was not entirely unfamiliar with Call the Doctor before it was chosen as this week’s album at Mookbarks, I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard anyone talking about them on the radio or television.  They have spent nearly a quarter of a century lurking a little under the radar.

I can’t remember exactly when I first became aware of them, but I’m fairly sure I had no idea who they were back in 1996 when Call the Doctor came out, because I found out about music through Steve Lamacq’s Evening Session, Mark Radcliffe’s Graveyard Shift and, to a lesser extent, whatever was flavour of the month in the NME. And at that particular point in time, the British music scene was very focused on the home-grown product. Which is a shame, because my 18 year old self would have appreciated this a lot more than Menswear or Sleeper, or the second Oasis record or whatever else Radio 1 were hyping at the time

I’m not quite sure where they fit in to the musical canon. I think I first gave them a listen because they had been compared to New England American gothic country punk band Throwing Muses (at some point I will probably get around to writing an bonus piece about why their debut record was one of the best records to come out of the 1980s) but I don’t quite see the comparison.  Sleater-Kinney are not quite so not-of-this-world.  They’re a bit late, and not quite ragged enough around the edges, to be riot grrrl (though they came from Olympia, so you might want to argue that they were the very definition of riot grrrl. I have a theory that the most interesting music to emerge from that scene came much later, when its protagonists had learned to play. I’d rather listen to Ex Hex’s Ripped, produced by three forty-something veterans of that scene a couple of years ago, than anything by Bikini Kill or Huggy Bear) and insufficiently miserable to be grunge. But perhaps the trick is to wind back another twenty years for a musical reference point. Listening to this record, I can see why Greil Marcus described them as the greatest punk band there ever was.

Their sound is a little low and bass-heavy, compared to say, the Sex Pistols, which is odd because they don’t actually have a bass guitar player on this record. It is a three piece comprising lead guitar, rhythm guitar and drums, and I can only guess that the sound comes from having de-tuned the guitars down to, at the very least, a D, and possibly a C#. It’s fast, it’s at least somewhat furious sounding, and lead singer Corin Tucker produces a really in-your-face vocal performance. All of which would do little to distinguish them from a thousand other bands if the songs weren’t any good, but I’m pleased to report that it’s generally pretty good – and in places, better than that. There’s something euphoric about the way the guitars change up a gear at about 1m 35 into opening track, Call the Doctor and Good Things is an object lesson in how to write a 3 minute pop song.

It’s not the most musically diverse sounding record in the world and I don’t doubt that were it longer, it would start to feel  samey, but they have called it exactly right in keeping the songs short (only Good Things and Taste Test exceed the 3 minute mark, and even then, only by seconds) and the whole thing is only half an hour long.

I happened to be thinking about the whole experience of nightclubs this week, sparked by a trip for a friend’s 40th to Balkanarama, which I think must be the first time I’ve been inside one in the best part of ten years, though I rather enjoyed the experience of jumping up and down in a crowded sweaty room to very rapid east-European folk music. But back in the day, I used to regularly spend my Saturday nights (or perhaps it was my Friday nights, I can’t quite recall) on the bottom floor of a place called ‘The Rocking Horse’ on Victoria Street. While the upper two floors tended to play what I’ve taken to calling throat-infection metal and sub-Marilyn Manson goth music, the bottom floor was a haven for the punkier end of indie and this album would have sounded great on that small dance floor. But as far as I know, I never actually heard a Sleater-Kinney track being played there.

So stick it on the stereo, turn up the volume and jump around in the moshpit inside your head.

Highlights: Call the Doctor, Good Things, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, Taste Test