Week Eight: Introduction

Which one was Fame Academy? I lose track a little. There was the one that produced Hear’Say that was on ITV, I think. And at some point along came Britain’s Got Talent, whose title the show seemed to go out of its way to refute. I think the X-Factor is still going (was that the one that foisted One Direction on the world? Or was it Girls Aloud? Or both?) and there’s something called The Voice which I think is meant to be a little bit more high-minded on account of how the judges couldn’t see the contestants and so were supposed to be judging them solely on how they sounded. BBC rather than ITV. There was one called Pop Idol, wasn’t there? But Fame Academy? It flew under my radar, and, notwithstanding that wikipedia tells me her debut record sold 600,000 copies, I honestly don’t think I’d ever knowingly heard of Alex Parks before her name showed up over at Mookbarks on Sunday.

It begins with Maybe That’s What it Takes, which sounds to me like inoffensive adult-oriented pop. Not something that would have me reaching for the ‘off switch’ but, equally, nothing I think I’m going to remember. The same is true of Cry, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m going to have anything to say about this record.  Dirty Pretty Words reminded me a little of that Christian Goth band, Evanescence, that seemed to be inescapable for a while. But not necessarily in a bad way. It feels a little more musically adventurous than the standard-issue talent show radio-friendly unit-shifter. The crunchy guitar sound, weirdly, brought to mind Snap’s The Power. Which wouldn’t usually be a point in a song’s favour, but anything that establishes a little distance from Leona Lewis can only be a good thing.

Um, then comes Imagine. The world is really not crying out for more covers of a song that I wasn’t wildly keen on in the first place, and the melismatic over-emoting really highlights just how awful the lyrics are. I’m not automatically against melisma. I could happily listen to Elizabeth Fraser or Jeff Buckley all day. The more so if they’re dueting. But too often it sounds like someone just wanting to show that they can reach the notes and hold a tune, as if what they are really doing is submitting an application for a part in a Broadway musical.

The choice of cover versions strikes me as decidedly unimagin(e)ative. As it was 2003, we get her take on Mad World which really adds nothing to Gary Jules’ reimagining of the Tears for Fears hit (on the subject of which, couldn’t she have instead had a go at Everybody Wants to Rule the World? I’d sort of like to hear  that). Her version of Yellow is, to be fair, further proof that Chris Martin is a rather better songwriter than he is vocalist, though it has nothing on Aimee Mann’s The Scientist. She’s brave enough to have a go at Here Comes the Rain Again, and while I can’t really see what it adds to the original, (though probably the target audience may well have been rather less familiar with the Eurythmics than I am), it does prove that she has the pipes… Everybody Hurts strikes me as exactly the kind of song that ends up getting mutilated on talent shows. Suffice to say I had no need for a six minute version in which Parks manages to squeeze four syllables into ‘hand’…

And then there’s Beautiful (Permit me a digression: I had confused this with the James Blunt song of the same name. He may have produced some of the most toe-curlingly awful music of the last fifteen years, but at least he has a sense of humour… And it turns out that Linda Perry, who wrote Beautiful for Christina Aguilera, was also responsible for getting Blunt a record deal in the USA and was the front woman of 90s pop-rockers, 4 Non-Blondes, who were inescapable on Atlantic 252 for a time when I was in my third or fourth year of secondary school. What’s Going On might have been an interesting choice of cover for this record. Oh, and to digress from the digression, here’s an illuminating interview with the Amanda Ghost, who wrote the James Blunt song, and who, like Linda Perry, also went from song-writing to a career as a record label mogul…).

It’s all competently performed, but it really is the sound of talent-show balladry eating itself. Now I have a soft spot for a good cover version. Or, perhaps, I should say, for an unusual cover. Kathryn Williams channeling Kurt Cobain’s inner folkie with All Apologies, China Drum imagining how Bob Mould might have sung a Kate Bush song or Richard Thompson bringing out the medieval elements in Britney Spears’ Oops I did it again…

(Here’s a playlist I made earlier….)

But none of the covers on this album pass that test. The problem is that talent shows are really just karaoke competitions. And Alex Parks may be very good at karaoke, but it’s not really something on which to base a pop career.

Anyways, back to the record… Stones and Feathers actually sounds like a pretty decent ballad. A welcome relief from the cover versions, on the subject of which, for a moment I was intrigued to see Wandering Soul on the track-listing, but then I realised I’d forgotten that the Portishead song was Wandering Star and Wandering Soul is another original track straddling the line between Evanescence and T’Pau. It’s pleasant enough musical wallpaper, but to my ears at least, nothing more.

There are hints that she might be a more interesting artist than this record lets her show. That in a parallel universe, she might have been the Alison Moyet of the early years of the 21st Century or Adele avant la lettre. Maybe the problem was that it all happened so quickly. Not so much that she was so young, but that the whole thing was, according to wikipedia, recorded in a hurried fortnight after her talent show win.

Perhaps you had to be there. Maybe if I’d been a shy, awkward teenager in the early 2000s, young enough not to be utterly uninterested in Fame Academy. this album would bring back a warm flood of nostalgia rather than the tidal wave of indifference that engulfed me.

Highlights:  Um, meh.  I suppose Stones and Feathers and Dirty Pretty Words…


Week Seven: Faerie Stories

In my own private hell, there is almost certainly ‘social dancing’. Having been born with two left feet and the spatial awareness of a blind naked mole rat (feel free to correct me if the blind naked mole rat is in fact a creature that can bust a move on the dancefloor) dancing, especially of the kind that requires me to know what direction I should be moving in, who I should be dancing with, whether I’m to move to my left or right, or indeed, which requires me to know my left from my right while moving at the same time, has always been an act of personal humiliation. It’s like a live-action version of one of those horrible 3 dimensional reasoning questions you get on IQ tests and I can’t do it. When I found myself at the wedding of friends from the ‘New Scotland Country Dance Society’ a few years back, I spent a large part of the evening photographing other people dancing because it gave me the illusion of something to do and everyone else seemed to be on the dancefloor.

Oh, and bagpipes. They’ll be in my little corner of hell too. Maybe it’s having lived in the centre of Edinburgh for the last twenty years, but I really struggle to think of a less pleasant sounding musical instrument. I mean, who actually listens to bagpipe music by choice? So its fair to say if I’m going to appreciate overtly Scottish folk music, of the kind that you could imagine being played by a ceilidh band, then its going to have to be good enough to overcome certain irrational prejudices of mine.

Still, the Peatbog Faeries are not a straight ceilidh band, but a ‘fusion’ band, mixing Scottish folk with various electronica. Which might work. Or it might not. When I was about twelve or thirteen, a Romanian DJ had a series of hits by mixing Gregorian chant with a 4/4 eurodance backing track under the nom de plume Enigma. And he was really just ruining Gregorian chant by making it sound like something you might hear in a provincial nightclub on a Friday night. Though at the age of 13, being too young to know any better, or indeed, to have the faintest idea what Gregorian plainsong actually was, I rather liked it.

Thankfully, Faerie Stories is a rather more professional effort. If it had just been ceilidh music with some electronic drums thrown in, or worse still, someone using a sampler to stick dance beats on top of traditional folk music just to show that it could be done, I suspect I would have quickly lost interest, but it does what it does quite well.

Caberdrone takes the whole ceilidh-trance thing to its logical conclusion, while Mr Problematic makes this the third album in as many weeks which has at least one track that brought to mind 70s prog rock. The use of echo on the drums on several tracks reminded me of the more experimental end of reggae music that I’ve heard (I’m not going to pretend to be an expert though – most of my exposure to reggae comes either from living two doors down as a kid to Northern Soul impresario Roger Eagle, hearing Lee Scratch Perry playing in his front room as I walked past, or from the flatmate who used to play the Easy Star All Stars’ take on OK Computer, Radiodread.

It might be coincidence, but it was the longest tracks, the 8 minute Mr Problematic and the 6 minute + Cameronian Rant and Get Your Frets Off that I liked best. Because this is music that works through repetition, drone, a kind of folk version of the sort of trance music that echoed from the walls of my halls of residence years ago. I know this sounds like damning with faint praise, but for me, it was great background music. Something conducive to getting on with work. Or dancing.  Some say: “Dance like nobody’s watching.”  I say “Dance when you think nobody’s looking”) but if I’ve got the flat to myself, and I’m sure that nobody’s peering through the window…

Highlights Get Your Frets Off, Cameronian Rant, Mr Problematic

Week Six: Siamese Dream

Ah, the soundtrack to my teens… This is a very adolescent record in its lyrical concerns. On the opening track, Corgan snarls “let me out” repeatedly and implores the song’s subject to “tell me all of your secrets”. Not, perhaps, quite to the cartoon caricature extent of Rage Against the Machine or Therapy? (My choice of examples probably does rather date me. What do sullen teenage boys listen to now? I mean, surely they have something on the stereo while they’re playing Call of Duty?) but all the same, this is a record that really meant something to me at the age of 16, but which I can’t help thinking wouldn’t have anything like the same impact if I were hearing it for the first time this week. Not that the Daily Mash touched a raw nerve yesterday, or anything…

I first heard it when a friend from my maths class had lent me his copy. He was a big fan of grunge bands of the time like Nirvana, Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr, but for all that I rather liked them, I did find them a bit stripped down, a bit sparse. So Siamese Dream could have been made for me. Because, for all that, because the Smashing Pumpkins were an American rock band of the early 90s who made liberal use of their distortion pedals and had Butch Vig on board as a producer, they tended to get lumped in with the grunge movement, they were really something quite different. Their 70s touchstones were not the Sex Pistols and the Stooges but rather a desire to merge the brute force of Black Sabbath with the ambiance of Pink Floyd. The title Siamese Dream is appropriate, for the music suggests something not quite of the waking world.

It begins with Jimmy Chamberlin’s drum rolls calling the listener to attention before Corgan launches into an opening riff that reminds me not a little of Mogwai’s Mogwai Fear Satan (it might just be the use of the droning E string). A few years back Guy Garvey did a themed show on 6music about ‘great album openers’ and he chose Cherub Rock as the first track to play. I can’t disagree. Years after we last were acquainted, it’s still an impressive wall-of-sound opener. Melding the loud/quiet/loud dynamic of the Pixies with the dynamic range and willingness to experiment with effects pedals and post-production that marked the best of shoegaze and dream-pop.

Emily’s review at Mookbarks compares Siamese Dream with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and points out that this is really a shoegaze record. And though the thought had never really occurred to me (perhaps just because I thought of shoegaze as a British thing, although on the other hand, I always thought of Beaster as a shoegaze record) that’s what this record is. It’s about sonic textures and the wonders of what can be achieved with a vast bank of effects pedals. It is probably for the best that the vocals are low enough down in the mix that much of the time, I can’t really make out what he’s singing. Odd lines that do jump out sometimes sound really rather silly (“life’s a bummer, when you’re hummer”?)

And that, for the most part, is what I like about this record. It’s not really about anything but itself. It’s all about the sound, the chord progressions, the often beautiful lead guitar parts, Chamberlin’s drumming. In particular, I loved the dream-like noodling of the final two minutes of Hummer, the sonic assault of the opening of Geek USA, the massively multi-tracked guitar parts in break-up ballad Soma or the finger-picking at the beginning of Mayonaise By the by, did the Pumpkins just throw darts at a dictionary to arrive at their song titles? And if so, why didn’t they even spell mayonnaise correctly? Come to that, what sort of a name for a band is the Smashing Pumpkins anyway? Crushing Butternut Squash? Disintegrating Yams? At least it’s not Crispy Ambulance, I suppose

There are moments that don’t work at all. I had all but forgotten about the 8 minute over-the-top wig-out of Silverfuck because I’d deleted it from the version of the album I’d saved to my hard drive years ago. Of all the songs they could have chosen to drag out to eight minutes, this was really not the one. And while I like the bells on Disarm, it sound horribly over-wrought and desperately in need of a more appealing vocal performance than Billy Corgan can provide. It’s like Queen without the knowing wink and sense of irony.

Oh yes, the vocals. A cruel description of the Pumpkins might be Pink Floyd meets Black Sabbath with Kermit the Frog on vocals. Corgan is not one of the world’s great singers. Indeed, on the basis of D’Arcy Wretzky’s occasional backing vocals, he’s not even the best singer in the Smashing Pumpkins. It would become more of a problem later (Ava Adore is best avoided, Mary, Star of the Sea likewise) but for the most part, on this record, his vocals are low enough in the mix so as not to be too obtrusive. All the same, I can’t help but think that what prevents Spaceboy from being a great ballad is the sound of Corgan straying beyond the boundaries of what he can sing.

It ends on a high note, and one that gives a hint as to the band’s future direction. Sweet Sweet takes that most basic of chord structures: G, D, Em, and does something rather beautiful with them (the trick, I figured out after playing about a bit with my guitar, is a slightly unusual tuning), while Luna is a moment of serene calm after the musical storm, and a nod to the neo-Victoriana that would colour the ambitious if flawed follow-up, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I can’t quite believe that it was over twenty years ago now that I set off on my bike to the nearest record shop, some fifteen miles away, one Saturday morning (money from my Saturday job not stretching to both the cost of the album and the train fare) to get my hands on the new Smashing Pumpkins record. At the time I loved it, I’m not sure that I’d want to listen to a two hour 28 track Smashing Pumpkins concept album now, though.

All in all, the experience of revisiting Siamese Dream felt not dissimilar to meeting an old friend I hadn’t seen for twenty years. Beforehand, the worry that perhaps we would have absolutely nothing to talk about, that our lives would have diverged too far. And afterwards, the sense that they were from a very different time in my life and we couldn’t just pick up where we had left off. But at the time, in the moment, it was great to make acquaintance with an old friend again.

Highlights: Cherub Rock, Mayonaise, Sweet, Sweet, the first three minutes of Soma and the last two minutes of Hummer.

Week Five: Solid Air

There is usually a degree of collective agreement as regards an artist’s best works. When someone had a career spanning decades and consisting of tens of albums, there will typically be one or two which are regarded as their ‘must have’ albums. Maybe three if the artist in question was either especially prolific or just very, very good.

For the most part, that received wisdom tends not to be a bad guide. I would rather listen to Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks than Slow Train Coming or Empire Burlesque. And for years I’d been put off Neil Young because my introduction to him was via my Mum’s copy of Harvest Moon. Which was rubbish.  The place to start really should have been Harvest or After the Goldrush (although I would argue that Zuma is actually his best). There are bands about which I’m something of a fan-boy where I might pick one of their more obscure records .I reckon REM’s Murmur is as good as, if not better than, Automatic for the People. And there are others where perhaps my favourite record is one that is not typical of their work because I’m not that interested in their usual sound – so for me U2’s Bowie-influenced Zooropa is a far more interesting record than their multi-million selling Joshua Tree.

But sometimes this received wisdom can send you off in the wrong direction. It’s not that I don’t like Solid Air but it’s not my go-to John Martyn album. If I had to save one from the fire, it would have to be 1977’s One World. Though this should perhaps come with the warning that I’m much more taken by his proggy echoplex and his running of his acoustic guitar through various FX pedals than I am in his more conventionally folk blues output.

It was, however, the John Martyn album I went to first. I can’t remember quite when I bought it – I’m guessing it must have been cheap in Fopp and I’d seen Solid Air appear on enough different lists of people’s favourite records that I thought it was something I really ought to own myself (this being the time before Youtube made it easy to find out what something sounded like and I was much more reliant on the recommendations of magazines like Uncut.  Hope-taping didn’t kill music, but home-streaming might have done for the music press.  It’s possible, too, given that I was working my way through the Rebus novels at the time, that Ian Rankin might have played a part. Certainly, Inspector Rebus, a man of a certain age who liked a drink or ten, strikes me as someone who would have connected with John Martyn’s music.

It begins with the title track, a mellow melancholy track that sets the mood for the album as a whole. Fiona observed that Martyn has something of a Marmite singing voice, and I wouldn’t dispute that, but I like it, albeit with certain reservations. He sings in a sort of slurred tenor suggestive of someone under the influence of strong sedatives. Or perhaps just a lot of booze. Martyn, by all accounts, was a drinker. And I think I preferred what could be described as his mellow-drunk singing voice rather more than the barking angry drunk who appears on Rather be the Devil.

I can imagine that this record might have been enormously popular in its day with the kind of person who had a very extensive vinyl collection and had spent good money on the kind of hi-fi system that gets the best out of it. It’s the sort of mix of jazz, blues and folk-rock that I can imagine appealing to audio-nerds, so perhaps what I really should have done to get fully immersed in this record would have been to hook it up to the venerable Sansui amplifier that sits in my living room, which my Dad bought when he first moved out of home in the early 1970s and which I’m sure brought out all the production tricks in the likes of Mike Oldfield.

Listening to it now, I think I might be hearing a kind of proto-trip-hop. That might sound ridiculous, but while this is a very ‘organic’ record, with not a synthesizer or a sample to be found, the mood it evokes is really not a million miles away from Tricky, Massive Attack or Portishead. It’s 3am come-down music. Actually, as it happens, John Martyn later covered Glory Box and did rather a good job of it. Later, in the 80s, he would experiment extensively with keyboards, drum machines and synthesizers, with, um, mixed results. (It was only much later that I realised that Solid Air was not the first John Martyn record I heard – that was 1985’s Piece by Piece, which was part of the background soundtrack of my pre-teen years, a regular choice in the car’s cassette player for a while.  Have a listen to Nightline if the idea of an electronic John Martyn intrigues, but be warned that if his voice is Marmite, then this is Bovril…

It might be me, or it might be what I think what best plays to Martyn’s vocal strengths, but the more breezy, upbeat songs on the record don’t work quite as well for me. Easy Blues and Over the Hill are perfectly pleasant, but they feel a bit slight. Mere musical interludes. The highlights for me are the songs that are in a conventional folk-rock idiom: May You Never does sound like a busker or pub band’s favourite, but it’s no worse for that. And Man in the Station is a worthy addition to the vast cornucopia of songs about trains and railways.

It was pleasant enough to go back to this record, but after a few days, I rather felt I’d exhausted my reacquaintance with it. That I wasn’t going to get much more out of it than I had first time around, when it was a part of the soundtrack to my immediate post-university days and the feeling of limbo and waiting for something to start that I associate with that time. At the risk of saying something that would get me in Pseud’s Corner if Pseud’s Corner accepted entries from obscure blogs that nobody reads, I think that very often a record is something that you can mine only until you have exhausted it, and when you’re done, there is nothing more to be found from further listening. In the end, everything ends up being mere background easy listening.

Incidentally, his final studio album, Out on the Cobbles, made when he was clearly in failing health and knew that he was not long for this world (the album cover features the sun setting over what appears to be a cemetery), was a return of sorts to the sound of Solid Air. And the strange thing is, while on an objective level, I don’t think the songwriting is anything like as good as it is on Solid Air, it’s nonetheless a record that I find myself going back to rather more often. And maybe it’s because Solid Air just feels like a demonstration of technical prowess, while Out on the Cobbles, with songs like  is actually about something. The sound of a man looking back on a life in which he left a great trail of wreckage in his wake, but finding a sort of peace at the end.

Highlights: Solid Air, Don’t Want to Know, May You Never, Man in the Station

Week Four: Channel Orange

It is perhaps a sign that I am now at least in the foothills of middle age (I turn 40 next year) that, while his biggest single might have had more than a hundred and fifty million plays on Spotify, and Channel Orange was the Guardian’s album of the year in 2012, I’m not entirely sure I’d ever heard of Frank Ocean before. I only have mental space for a certain number of musical Franks, and he is neither Sinatra nor Sidebottom. When I saw the name at the top of the Mookbarks article, I had confused him for a moment with public school indie songsmith, Frank Turner whom I’d vaguely remembered had written some not-terribly-inspiring song called Tapedeck Heart.

Now R&B and hip-hop are two of what I suspect this exercise will come to reveal are the many blind-spots in my musical knowledge. I think this goes back to a combination of the awful ersatz-R&B that was the staple of Radio 1 in the late 1990s when I spent several summers working on factory production lines or in bars and restaurants where this was piped through the PA (think Backstreet Boys or n-Sync, Craig David, R Kelly and many others whose names have long since escaped my mind) and the fact that some years before that, my brother and I would go round to the neighbours because they had a hi-spec PC and we would play long games of Civilisation while listening to records. And seemingly in unison, the other three became obsessed by the ‘gangsta rap’ of Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg and Warren G. And I just didn’t get it… To steal a line from popular song, it said nothing to me about my life

My younger self would probably have prefaced this piece with a grumble about how the term ‘R&B’ had been misappropriated and that Chuck Berry et al would be rolling in their graves. But there’s enough snark on the internet already, and really, what’s the problem if the same word is used to describe two quite different musical genres? It is at least sort of possible to trace a very crooked line from 50s rhythm and blues, through funk, disco and soul music, to modern R&B. Whereas as far as I can tell, nothing links the garage rock of The Stooges or MC5 with garage house music. Anyway, to the album itself….

It doesn’t begin promisingly. Thinking ‘Bout You has the vocal delivery and synth drum sound that brings back memories of exactly the kind of music I mentioned above. It’s not fair. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with either falsetto vocals or mid-tempo electronic drum patterns. But I just don’t like it. There follow a series of tracks about the lives of idle rich kids in sunny California. There’s a bit of musical variety coming in, as Sweet Life and Rich Kids have more than a hint of Stevie Wonder about them – a touch of old school soul. And lyrically, it’s refreshing to hear R&B music that comments on, rather than just bragging about, enormous wealth.

All the same, I’m not really finding anything to draw me in. It’s polite, pleasant background music, but nothing more, and if I weren’t doing this as a project, I expect might have abandoned the album at about this point.

Which would have been a shame, because about half way through, it suddenly starts to get a lot more interesting. Pilot Jones and Crack Rock have the memorable melodies that are, to my ears at least, missing from the opening songs, but it is with the 9 minute Pyramids, a surreal re-imagining of Cleopatra as a dancer in some sleazy nightspot of that name, that I start to get it. It’s a real musical melting pot of a song, and at the risk of sounding like a ridiculous musical Jilly Goulden, I detect strong traces of Prince, a touch of Giorgio Moroder, echoes of Kraftwerk, and just a sniff of 70s prog rock. It was a New Year’s resolution of mine (of sorts) to re-string the guitars which take up space in my flat and start playing them again and I found myself practising scales using Pyramids (and Bad Religion) as a backing track. Suffice to say I didn’t come up with anything close to the guitar solo that kicks in at 8 minutes 50.

Its followed by Lost. Another highlight (at least if one doesn’t listen too closely to the lyrics in the verses, I mean, “Double D/ Big full breast on my baby (yo we goin’ to Florida)/ Triple weight/ Couldn’t weigh the love I’ve got for the girl” really?) and a still more overt nod in the direction of Prince and for the first time, I find myself appreciating the drum sound on this record. If I were an A&R man, then this, rather than Thinking ‘Bout You would have been the first single.

Bad Religion takes what is an old pop soul staple, the conflict between lust and god, and does something a bit different with it – comparing unrequited love to “a cult of one” while Pink Matter is just another good tune, and I have to say I find Andre 3000’s rapping more to my taste than Earl Sweatshirt’s rather didactic efforts on Super Rich Kids.

Only at the end, with the rather woeful Forrest Gump does he drop the ball again. A song that the skip-button was invented for (and an illustration of why the other Frank is just wrong to be nostalgic about cassettes). I doubt this is going to be a record I’m going to keep going back to – for all that others have talked about how this is an intensely emotional, moving record, I found that I could appreciate it only on a fairly technical level – I admired it more than I loved it.

Highlights: Pyramids, Lost, Bad Religion, Pink Matter

Week Three: Hadestown

For the first time, I’m listening to an album I’ve never heard before, by an artist entirely unfamiliar to me. The Mookbarks piece remarks that there are “people who say that they like concept albums but can’t stand musicals, and some who love musicals but look askance at concept albums” and I’m firmly in the former category. I have not been, and probably will not go, to see La La Land. Actually, I’m not sure my problem is with the concept of musicals – at least as an auditory experience so much as the fact that many of them sound to me like the musical equivalent of painting only in bright primary colours, as coming from the world of the variety show. Musical films are another matter. I was amused to hear on Wittertainment last week that the film critic James King, like me, has always struggled to get past the question of why the characters keep bursting into song. Which is why almost the only musical I’ve ever been able to watch was the Buffy episode Once More With Feeling, even if it does suffer a little from the fact that most of the cast couldn’t sing…

And the other term used to describe it was “folk opera”, specifically, a folk-opera version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and my relationship with folk is, um, mixed. On the one hand, I rather like quite a lot of what could be described as folk-rock, but on the other, I can’t help finding folk music, especially of the local variety, rather staid and worthy. Was this going to be the kind of folk music that makes up a significant proportion of the anachronism that is my record collection, or am I going to have the sort of Scottish folk music that I’ve heard too much of and cannot get remotely excited by. Middle class, twenty first century types singing about the fantasy of being crofters or fishermen.

So I hit play and…it was more or less instantly apparent that I was in safe hands. The album’s sound is an intriguing melding of much of what has been interesting about American acoustic music of the last ten or fifteen years. A sort of Joanna Newsom meets Sufjan Stevens with a strong dose of The Low Anthem thrown in… And Justin Vernon (not using his ‘stage name’, Bon Iver, here) singing the part of Orpheus.

There’s a well chosen mix of vocalists to ‘play’ the different parts: Singer Greg Brown does a very good impersonation of Tom Waits as Hades; Anais Mitchell herself is Eurydice and sounds like a melding of Joanna Newsom and Dolly Parton; her record-label boss Ani Di Franco turns up as Persephone, playing her as a jazz diva, while Ben Knox Miller from the aforementioned Low Anthem is Hermes and the Haden Triplets are wonderful as the fates.

I can’t help thinking that the limitations of my brain’s ability to parse the spoken word meant I was probably missing much of the story-telling aspect of the record (I do wonder if the fact that I typically mishear every second or third word might lie behind my preference for abstract song lyrics over traditional story telling) but I can just about make out that it is a re-telling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice set in an approximation of depression-era America, with Hades the boss of a kind of underworld workhouse that seems as if it could have come out of a Dickens novel (or maybe it’s just that I was reading Hard Times while listening). I’m assuming that Anais Mitchell et al were not invited to play Donald Trump’s inauguration, but ‘Why We Build The Wall‘ does sound suddenly rather prescient and topical. Come to that, given that this record was written before the financial crash, the setting of a modern day depression-era USA also feels very of the moment. So I suppose, in a way, for all that I couldn’t quite follow the narrative of the story, I did get an impression of what was happening, and let’s face it, it’s Orpheus and Eurydice, you don’t have to hear every word to know that it doesn’t end well. Justin Vernon has a voice well suited to the channelling of despair.

For all that I struggle to hear song lyrics properly, I did particularly appreciate If Its True, which might just have supplanted Re:Stacks in that rather niche category of: my favourite Bon Iver song using gambling as a metaphor for life. Or in this case, for the notion of a system stacked against the little man:

The ones who tell the lies
Are the solemnest to swear
And the ones who load the dice
Always say the toss is fair
And the ones who deal the cards
Are the ones who take the tricks
With their hands over their hearts
While we play the game they fix

I only heard this record for the first time four days ago, so as yet, I really can’t say whether it will in time become one of my all-time favourite albums, or whether instead it will simply be one of the much greater number of records that I played incessantly for a short period of time before moving on to something new, but if a part of the point of all this is to hear music that I wouldn’t otherwise ever have been aware of. Final in passing comment:  Make sure you search out the Anais Mitchell album, and not the soundtrack for the later musical which to my ears at least, loses much of the subtlety and musical dexterity of the original.

Highlights: Wait for Me, Why We Build The Wall, If It’s True.

Week Two: Blackstar

So, week two and David Bowie’s swansong, Black Star. It would be more or less exactly a year ago that I read Alexis Petridis’ review in the Guardian and been intrigued enough to give it a listen on Spotify. And then two days later, he died, the first of what seemed like a torrent of celebrity deaths last year (I remember being sat in a bar a few weeks later listening to a friend singing The Laughing Gnome in the voice of Alan Rickman. You had to be there. Or perhaps it’s better you weren’t…) and the album came to be seen in a very different light. In that two day window in which I was listening to it unaware that Bowie was a dying man as he wrote it, it didn’t sound to me like a record about death. If anything, that was a vibe I had got more from the single from his previous album, Where are We Now?, although I suppose that seemed concerned with mortality only in the sense that anyone well into their seventh decade must have, rather than Lazarus which, with the benefit of the hindsight does sound like a man saying goodbye to the world.

I’m not someone who was a huge Bowie fan. I have a compilation album somewhere, and I have dug around a bit in his back catalogue using Spotify, but I was born too late for him to be one of my childhood heroes. And being boringly male and heterosexual, his androgynous 1970s personas were not something that spoke to me personally. As a teenager, I wanted to melt into the background, rather than wear elaborate face paint, still less a dress, and when I was fifteen, he was a dinosaur from an earlier time and I was familiar with him mostly as the man whose The Man Who Sold The World Nirvana covered in their MTV unplugged slot. Looking back now, though his influence was all over the musical world of the 1990s. Suede’s debut album surely couldn’t have existed without Bowie. And U2’s surprisingly interesting 1990s records were in a sense, their own Berlin period. Less obviously, perhaps, I can’t help hearing Bowie in the art-punk experimentalism of the Pixies. So perhaps in part I didn’t get Bowie when I was young because I was born into a musical world that he had already changed.

The odd thing is, while I never really went back and listened to the records which made his reputation – Station to Station, Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, or Hunky Dory (the exception, as with the writer of the Mookbarks piece is Low which I uploaded to an MP3 player about eight years ago and found myself listening to a lot for a while) – I did listen to his later albums. As I remember it, I had been lurking in Fopp on Rose St one wet Sunday when Fall Dog Bombs the Moon came on and I thought I’ve got to have that record. And thanks to a piece on the Guardian Weekly Music podcast (sadly no more) I did check out The Next Day when was released out of the blue four years ago.

I expect that had Bowie lived another ten years or more, Black Star would be considered a minor footnote to his career, and have attracted little attention. Which would have been a shame because it’s actually a rather good record. It’s only 7 tracks and 40 minutes long, and at the risk of upsetting the true believers, I think it might actually have been better if it had been released as an EP (if that isn’t an entirely redundant term in an era in which the length of a ‘record’ really need have nothing to do with the amount of information it is possible to encode into a lump of vinyl), scratching Sue (Or in a season of crime) and ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore from the track list.

It starts with the nearly 10 minute long title track which shows that in contrast with many of his contemporaries, Bowie’s music continued to move with the times and suggested a man who was still listening to new music. To my ears at least, the drum patterns in particular sound very much of our time; it’s hard to imagine this record sounding quite as it does if it were released in 1995, let alone 1975. It reminded me a little of late-period Radiohead, albeit a less downbeat Radiohead. A kind of warm, after-dark jazz that put me in mind of sitting out late one evening at the end of a long hot day in the Turkish countryside. That might make it sound like easy-listening coffee shop music, which would be unfortunate because I think it’s more interesting than that.

Lazarus is the song that appears to be most obviously about his impending demise although the final track I Can’t Give Everything Away sounds in its own way like a final statement. The whole album sounds immaculately crafted, and that’s no surprise as I’m sure Bowie was able to call on the best session musicians in the business. And if there’s nothing on this record which is going to stand out as one of his iconic, memorable songs (something that became apparent listening to the Spotify retrospective of his career after he died is that he really did write an awful lot of very good pop singles – there can’t be many artists where a four hour compilation wouldn’t start to try the patience of all but the true believers – as an album it certainly hangs together better than almost anything I’ve heard from stars of the 60s and 70s who are still putting out new material today.  Really, that’s what marked him out as one-of-a-kind.  Where so many musicians still active in their fifties and sixties are  producing pale re-treads of their own previous work, Blackstar demonstrates a man whose creativity remained intact.  And in contrast with a certain Nobel Prize winner, his voice sounded great right to the end too.

Highlights: Black Star, Lazarus, I Can’t Give Everything Away