The 10 best albums of Q2 2020

I am not sure why I put myself through this pain every quarter. Selecting favourite albums inevitably means taking away several albums that are really great. This quarter that includes releases by Sparks, the Magnetic Fields, Iris Viljanen, Tim Burgess, Bananagun, OHMME and Robert Sotelo just to mention a few.

Still, it forces me to pick the albums that really matter the most, although I am sure that you, dear reader, would make other choices. Music taste is personal!

Aksak Maboul – Figures

With their feet firmly placed in the Canterbury origins of RIO and their heads in a cloud of Stereolab albums, Aksak Maboul have delivered quite a masterpiece.

Although I initially struggled with the rhythmically monotonous parts and skipped to the more National Health sounding passages, repeated listenings have made me capitulate and reconsider. There can be variation also in repetition. That idea also works quite amazingly for the vocal parts of this album. Whereas Marc Hollander and his wife Véronique Vincent pay tribute to Francophone 1960s pop, they simultaneously turn it upside down. The track ‘Dramuscule’ features a dialogue between a dominant man and a submissive woman while simultaneously exposing the absurd misogyny on display.

Véronique Vincent was not an original member of the band, but she certainly takes centre stage here, and the album is all the better for it.

Betlehem Casuals – The Tragedy of Street Dog

Bethlehem Casuals feature seven members, and they certainly make a racket on their second album. While definitely a pop album, it is eccentric, full of twists and turns, and with a sound that throws everything from the past 50 years into the sonic mixer.

But somehow, it all comes out in a quite tuneful way, and doesn’t sound contrived at all. Some tracks are progressive and funky, with a driving saxophone theme; others are smooth and melodic with restive violins and beautiful voices.

Saying that this is the future of pop is an overstatement, but the Betlehem Casuals certainly prove that pop has a future! 

Doomshakalaka – Doomshakalaka

Don’t buy this thinking that you will finally get another Hot Club de Paris album. Now in his 30s, Paul Rafferty has moved on from the life affirming racket of his XTC math rock days and embraced a less quirky and somewhat more anthemic indie-rock world view.  

And rather than looking forward, he his now looking backward at his lost youth and revisiting important moments and memories.

This about-face is also reflected in the band name. The expression boomshakalaka is used in baseball for a slam dunk and more generally to express something powerful and joyous. But it probably originates from a nonsense word passage in the 1969 Sly and the Family Stone song ‘I Want to Take You Higher’. 

Since Rafferty is no longer on a joy trip, he simply switched the boom for a bit of doom.

As a result, this is an album that doesn’t reach out. But with repeated listens, the tunes grow on you and you start noticing all the devilishly nice details. Quite a lovely thing.

Massimo Giuntoli – Tender Buttons

Massimo Giuntoli often combines classical and popular music in a way that remains accessible while clearly being avant-garde. On his latest album, he has set poems from American Paris expatriate Gertrude Stein’s 1914 collection ‘Tender Buttons’ to music. Or maybe I should say: to piano. There is really not much else here than a rather harsh sounding piano (although there are a few other keyboard sounds) and Massimo’s voice, sometimes in splendid solitude; sometimes in dialogue with itself.

As I listen my head fills with modernistic images from silent movies. The melodies are quite varied and capture the strange juxtapositions in Stein’s words to great effect. 

I believe Massimo would prefer to be compared to Robert Wyatt, but as far as I am concerned this is more akin to what Peter Hammill might experiment with. 

Magic Bus – The Earth Years

Even the first few drum beats of the brilliant new Magic Bus album ‘The Earth Years’ capture the hard-to-define propulsive lightness of touch that so very much defines ‘In the Land of Grey and Pink’ era Caravan. Although that inspirational connection remains very much alive throughout the album, the music certainly isn’t just all Canterbury flavoured; another obvious spiritual companion from that era is Mighty Baby.

The songwriting quality is consistently high throughout, but the standout for me is nevertheless the fourth track; titled ‘The Road to La Mezquita’, it seemingly describes an imaginary journey to the great mosque-cathedral of Cordoba in Spain. The track resonates very much with our current state of isolation and inspires me to participate in my mind; a true head trip for the year 2020.

Once and Future Band – Deleted Scenes

The Once and Future Band are from Oakland and you can somehow hear that. Close to the West Coast but less frivolous and harder working. Their second album continues on the path that the first staked out, and we are still very much in a 1970s world where Paul McCartney sets the rules and Steely Dan pulls the punches.

Although the sound is rather maximalist, there is a genuine attention to detail that just puts a big smile on my face, although listening to the dramatic vocals almost can feel like a guilty pleasure at times. Thankfully, they have thrown in a few less enticing instrumentals so that I can catch my breath.

OTEME – Un Saluto alle Nuvole

Although I absolutely love their first two albums, OTEMEs 2018 release ‘Il Corpo nel Sogno’ for some reason slipped under my radar. That is something I will have to remedy, as their new album ‘Un Saluto alle Nuvole’ is absolutely gorgeous. It would be too easy to just slot OTEME into the Canterbury genre; instead, I think they are inspired by a similarly broad musical history as the original Canterbury bands were. 

Since I don’t speak Italian, I am afraid the impact of the words are lost on me, but they are first person accounts by those who care for the terminally ill at the Hospice of San Cataldo in Lucca.

As always a fairly large cast of musicians participate on the album, but I am nevertheless a bit surprised to find Tuxedomoon’s Blaine L Reininger on violin.

Revolutionary Army of The Infant Jesus – Songs Of Yearning

If there is one thing my dear departed father told me was how to be an atheist. But what he didn’t manage to teach me was to listen to religious music, which he loved. It wasn’t until I discovered the Revolutionary Army of The Infant Jesus that I understood how to do that. ‘Songs of Yearning’ certainly is their most consistent and haunting album since their reformation and release of ‘Beauty Will Save The World’ in 2015, after having been in hibernation since 1987.

The new album has a gorgeous pan-European feel despite being British. Songs are sung in multiple languages and there is a strong sense of centuries deep cultural grounding. Don’t miss the companion album ‘Nocturnes’ either!

Kavus Torabi – Hip To The Jag

Knifeworld and Gong band leader, member of a handful of other bands, record label owner and now also solo artist. Kavus certainly keeps busy. But luckily, it is all done with inspiration and attention to detail. If you, like me are a sucker for his signature songwriting style, you will get it in its purest form here.

And just like on the latest Gong album ‘The Universe Also Collapses’ Kavus is on a journey that is as spiritual as it is lysergic. On ‘Hip To The Jag’ the lyrics become more personal as he tries to reconcile life with death and searches for mystic revelation.

The album ends with an over 9 minutes long drone where the music seemingly aims for a universal resonance point, like an interstellar standing wave.

A strange and beautiful album.

Zopp – Zopp

If you love Canterbury music like I do, then you will immediately warm to the self-titled Zopp debut album, which not only includes contributions from people like Theo Travis but also unashamedly states its Kentish intent from the get-go.

Did I say I am Swedish? Hope I won’t spoil it all by saying that the first track, ‘Swedish Love’, is a well-chosen opener. It is pretty smart to start with such a short and whimsical thing that lures me in – and then to pull my ears further in with the longer and more complex ‘Before The Light’.

Zopp’s debut ticks the right boxes in the right way. While sounding very familiar, it remains in control of its own destiny and stands tall with its own compositions.

Best mini album of Q2 2020

Modern Nature – Annual

Almost a year after their brilliant debut LP, Modern Nature are back with a follow-up mini album. The silence has grown even further and reminds even more of ‘Laughing Stock’ era Talk Talk. However, the music here is less dramatic and more free-flowing, focused on capturing an atmosphere of annual recurrence.

The instruments include cello and saxophone; they are beautifully recorded and given space to breath in their analogue splendour. Jack Cooper’s voice is an ever present companion, whispering softly in your ear. On ‘Harvest’ Kayla Cohen of Itasca takes over lead vocals, but the softness remains the same.

Finally, on ‘Wynter’ we are back to the theme from the opening track, making the stillness and lack of motion complete. Breathtaking.

Best single of Q2 2020

Dullards – Unlucky 4 U / Grand Pier

Those (few) of you who are following my posts know that I have turned into quite a Roger Heathers fan. Well here he is back again in a new constellation as one half of the Dullards, an “experimental melodic glam rock power pop band” according to their Bandcamp page. 

‘Unlucky 4 U’ is a 50s pop pastiche mixed up with bits and pieces of power chords. Worthy of Roy Wood, it also features vocals that sound as if they have been recorded in a room on top of a helium factory.

‘Grand Pier’ on the other hand is a sweet ditty that hops and skips along on a summery melody while being contrasted by a panicky lyric.

Nothing dull with the Dullards!

Take a Magic Bus trip through The Earth Years

Earth-Years-final-TEXT-web

The new album by Magic Bus arrives with perfect timing. Not only does it have a summery shine to it; instead of wallowing in the gloom and doom around us, it is peaceful and positive. 

But it does that without being shallow or frivolous. Called ‘The Earth Years’ the album takes an earthly view on the human experience. The old “make love, not war” adage may be implied rather than explicit, but there is no mistaking the hippie lineage.

However, at least for us who have followed Magic Bus from their wonderful self-titled album back in 2010 to this, their fourth release, know that there is nothing contrived about them. Based in Devon, they practice the lifestyle that they preach, live in the moment and are not in a particular need to go anywhere.

As a result their music is simultaneously lazy and full of energy.

The album starts out with ‘Easy Om’. Om is said to be the first sound heard at the creation of the universe and might be interpreted as statement of intent for this album, given its title. 

Even the first few drum beats of the intro capture the hard-to-define propulsive lightness of touch that so very much defines ‘In the Land of Grey and Pink’ era Caravan. Although that inspirational connection remains very much alive throughout the album, the music certainly isn’t just all Canterbury flavoured; another obvious spiritual companion from that era is Mighty Baby.

The songwriting quality is consistently high throughout, but the standout for me is nevertheless the fourth track. Titled ‘The Road to La Mezquita’ it seems to  describe an imaginary journey to the great mosque-cathedral of Cordoba in Spain, seen from many perspectives, starting with that of a leaf:

I am the leaf

I drift

I float around

the empty city

We then get other points of view, from a mouse, a bird and even from a book. Humans are conspicuously absent from the journey, and as I listen I suddenly get a very strong image of the covid-19 pandemic lockdown situation we are in. People are holed up in their homes, and nature is reclaiming the outside world. 

All we can do is participate in our minds, hence the refrain:

Indoor travelling, indoor travelogue

Indoor travelling, dream around the world

I am most certainly letting my imagination run a bit too free here. But that is, I believe, exactly the purpose that Magic Bus have with this record: To set you mind free. Call it a head trip if you wish.

Another highlight is longest track ‘Squirrel’ which again takes the outside world view – here represented by a little squirrel that runs around with feet that hardly touch the ground – and contrasts that with the inner workings of our minds. Towards the middle, the track resolves into a mantric chant and then rises up in a sublimely Caravanesque instrumental outro. Classic stuff.

The album ends in peace and harmony, with ‘We are one’ and the refrain:

We are one, one beneath the sun 

We are one, together we are one

And indeed, there is no planet B. This is scientific fact and not just some druggy hippie sentiment. Either we act in unison, or we may well be about to put an end to the earth years for our species.

The Pretty Things 51st anniversary interview: Phil May R.I.P.

I am shocked and devastated today to receive news that Phil May has left us, at the age of 75. It seems he suffered complications after hip surgery due to having taken a fall with his bike.

His anti-authoritarian way of life is more relevant now than ever. In honour of his memory, I am posting an interview I did with him back in 2015. It was originally published in Japanese music magazine Strange Days #186, pages 55-62, May (of course!) 2015.

The English text is the originally submitted manuscript, and the images display the somewhat edited Japanese article.

Interview and article: Michael Bjorn


 

Strange Days 186 May 2015

The Pretty Things seem to always have been slightly out of step with everything: musical tastes, image fashions, audiences, and record companies. Their history is one of near misses and lost opportunities. Yet, with records like SF Sorrowand Parachutethey must be counted among the true greats. Now they are back with a massive box set with all albums, 45 hitherto unreleased rarities and a DVD with rare live performances and videos, which in true Pretty Things style misses their 50th anniversary and instead celebrates their 51st!

We talk to Phil May who is the only member who has been with the band for all those years to understand more.

 

It must be kind of shocking to see your whole lifetime in a box like this?

Phil: It is quite shocking. My young granddaughters saw one of the videos on it, and said: Grandpa, why are you behaving so crazily? Ha ha! There are things on the box that probably not even my kids are aware of – it will probably be quite a shock to them too!

 

People like Joey Ramone have credited you as the first garage band. Ending up with a big expensive box set like this is a bit of an irony, I suppose?

Phil: You are the first person thats drawn attention to that fact! I am also writing a book at the moment, and there is a lot of sleaze in there – you cant really wrap that up in cellophane!

Phil May 51st anniversary interview p55

People thought that the Beatles had long hair – but looking at some of the videos in the box, you were in a different league.

Phil: Yeah – and even the Rolling Stones got worried because we had taken their ground. Apparently Mick Jagger and Andrew Loog Oldham – as businessmen – could see the pitch they had made being undermined. Therefore they pulled rank and got us taken off Ready Steady Go.

 

As I understood it, they managed to get you thrown out of everything at BBC radio?

Phil: Obviously, they left no stone unturned. Vicky Wickham, the producer, Oldham and Jagger, they were all pals. Whether they had influence in other places, or if it was just the threat of not giving them first choice of playing a Stones single, I dont know. But there was a lot of blackmail and stuff going on in the record industry.

 

The “£.s.d.track that was on the Pretty Things on FilmEP and also as B-side to Come See Mewas banned of course.

Phil: Yes. The Pharmaceutical Society of Britain said we were promoting the use of a dangerous drug, and the BBC immediately banned it. We put the pounds, shillings and pence sign on it – but it was only tongue-in-cheek, we had no illusions that it would fool anybody. But I think it is like sex – it is more dangerous if you dont talk about it.

Drugs were beginning to be part of life. I was one of the people who was incredibly lucky and had fantastic trips; I have never had a bad one. You know, I really wrote SF Sorrow on it and for me it was a fantastic tool for my writing.

But for a lot of people it was devastating. We had a guy who did the light show, but some nights he couldnt even tell us apart from the other bands that were playing. Poor Mike the Light, I am sure he went through the rest of his life several sandwiches short of a picnic.

 

“£.s.d.was funnier than the Kinks – but ironically you were then forced to do a Kinks song.

Phil: Through Mick Avery or Ray or David, I had heard some really nice Kinks songs and doing a Kinks song was discussed between us. But then the record company took over. They got some of Rays demos from the publisher, and even though I said No, fuck it, these arent the songs I listened to they thought House in the Country was good.

The whole thing was bullshit to us. As you say, it was ironic! You get hoisted on your own petard!

Phil May 51st anniversary interview p56-57 

Recording SF Sorrowat Abbey Road at the same time as the Pink Floyd and the Beatles must have been quite an experience.

Phil: Because of the Beatles being in the building, we were trapped in for about 14 hours at a time by about 200 screaming school girls, who surrounded the building every day.

Abbey Road had this dreadful canteen, where you put half a crown in so you could open a little window, and it would be a sausage or a meal even. It was so disgusting that there were loads of food fights. It got to a kind of anarchy about the food situation.

But it wasnt all about the food: Lennon would always stick his head round the door every time he came in, and have a little listen. And, you know, we walked down the corridor and the door would open and it would be Bungalow Bill; or you would bump into Eric Clapton in the canteen who had this strange triad relationship with Patty and George.

 

Speaking of relationships, in the middle of recording SF Sorrow, your drummer Skip Alan went off to marry a French woman who had just been divorced.

Phil: Unbelievable, ha ha! She was very nice, Christine, a kind of femme fatale, more than twice his age probably. He had to try it – and I certainly wasnt going to stop him, even though we were in the middle of recording. At the time we didnt know it would be one of the most important musical statements we would make.

 

And this happened because you were not in the studio all the time.

Phil: We had no money. EMI had given us a £ 3.500 advance for the album, which was a joke. According to our manager Bryan Morrison, we owed more than that, so the advance disappeared. To feed ourselves and keep our families together, we had to go to work. We would do five days in the studio, and go off to Germany to do a couple of festivals. Then wed come back on so on.

 

After Dick Taylor had left, in the summer of -69, you recorded the Philippe DeBarge sessions.

Phil: Philippe came along somewhere to a gig and introduced himself, he was the son of a millionaire. And he said: I want to make a record. First, we didnt want to be bothered just for some rich persons ego. But, when we got to know him, we realised he wanted music really badly. He was a very nice guy and he had a kind of naivety about him and a sophistication, it was kind of an odd cocktail. He ended up becoming a very good friend and my daughters godfather, and therefore it was a pleasurable thing.

 

The sessions were recorded at Nova Studios in London. Did you ever go to France with DeBarge?

Phil: We went to his parents wonderful place in St. Tropez, before the sessions. We would hang out by the pool, getting stoned and talking about the album; Wally and I were starting to write things and get a feel for what Philippe was and what he could portray.

One evening, all the family would go in to St. Tropez for dinner. And this garage opens – theres a Rolls Royce 1837 with quilted seats; a Mercedes, a Ferrari, theres a Lamborghini. The old man, he was 65, went in black leather on this Harley Davidson; we went in the 1850 Genevieve or whatever it was, an extraordinary thing.

When we got to the quay in St. Tropez, there was no car parking, but we just got out of the car and left it. When we were halfway through our meal the police came – but they said Oh, monsieur DeBarge, no problem. Then the meal finishes, and we get up and walk out – nothing as disgusting as having a bill disturb the meal. It was just sent on later.

Quite funny – and when you are stoned, a lot of those things become even more humorous.

Phil May 51st anniversary interview p58-59

How did you record the songs?

Phil: We would do the track, and vocally I would sing it. Philippe, who was staying at the Hilton in London, would take a little cassette of my vocal, and the next day, he would come in and do it verbatim. We made the record like we were the Pretty Things. Serious stuff – it wasnt a playboys toy. There was a need to make another record, so I wouldnt say it was the finest bit of writing – but there are some really nice songs on it. And they were songs that in some ways had to suit Philippe.

 

A couple of the Philippe DeBarge tracks came from the Electric Banana records you had made.

Phil: Yeah, we had another source of income, which was very important to us, to keep us going. We made the dreadful Norman Wisdom film Whats Good For the Goose while we were writing SF Sorrow. While we were waiting to go on the film set, luckily, we used the time to write.

 

Some of the Electric Banana stuff is pretty good. How come it is not on the box set?

Phil: The Electric Banana discs were meant to be sent out to directors at TV companies who might be looking for source material for film. But some young kids started nicking them in De Wolfes stock room and sold them to record buyers. The recordings started to get a reputation, which was a bit worrying as we were signed up at the time and were working illegally. Thats why we had to use a pseudonym.

Then De Wolfe started putting it out as the Pretty Things, and we stopped them. They werent very nice people to deal with all the way along the line, and they paid us peanuts. Weve had a quite torrid legal time with them. I think its been sour grapes, really.

 

You then lived communally at Westbourne Terrace, where you recorded demos both before and after Parachutethat are included on the box.

Phil: Yeah, I was living with Gaia Mitchell who was a top model, she got me in there. Then a room became available and I got Wally in there because it was very useful when we were working on Parachute. Wed be writing and at around 1 oclock Id go and get into bed. But Wally stayed on and would be screaming at the top of his voice at 4 oclock in the morning – and the whole house would go What the fuck is going on!?! We were working with a Teac reel-to-reel tape machine and had headphones when we were doing the vocals, so others didnt hear the music. It was hilarious because you were only hearing these abruptly screamed vocals!

Phil May 51st anniversary interview p60-61

When you quit the Pretty Things in 1976, in the summer you went and stayed with your wife and Daughter on Philippe DeBarges houseboat on the Seine.

Phil: I was there for about 8 or 9 days, thats all. And then I was in constant contact with Jimmy Page and Peter Grant and Robert Plant, who said they wanted the band back together. I went to see the band and they said they preferred to carry on as Metropolis without me.

I think the wound was very deep and what also really contributed was the kind of drug abuse that was going on through those American years and the years with the launch of Swan Song. A lot of stuff was done that wasnt good for relationships at all. It is no surprise under all those pressures that the band broke up.

 

It seems you are picking up quite young audiences these days.

Phil: Yeah, we are, it is fantastic. God knows where they picked up on the music and how they got there. But its great because we have moved on, we are not like the Animals or even the Yardbirds who havent moved on.

 

Are you working on something now?

Phil: Weve got a new studio album being mastered as we speak and is coming out this spring. Ive done the artwork for the cover, and it is called The Sweet Pretty Things (Are In Bed Now, Of Course…) which is from Bob Dylans Tombstone Blues. We once spent a day together with Dylan and then forever after when he came to London, we were always away. So we kept getting these messages from him but we never saw him again.

Phil May 51st anniversary interview p62-63

Neil Innes – How Sweet To Be An Idiot

Innes - How Sweet To Be An Idiot

I have said this before, but now it is true more than ever: The world needs an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano

In a sad irony, the opening track of Neil Innes’ last solo album, ‘Nearly Really’ was called ‘Old Age Becomes Me’. Alas, that was not to be as he left us aged 75 on December 29th only a couple of months after that final album was released.

Before his untimely death, he was also working with Grapefruit Records on the definitive and much needed reissue of his debut album, ‘How Sweet To Be An Idiot’. This album is shock full of Innes’ carefree charm and warm humour, and, if you have a bit of patience with the first few songs, it offers up some absolutely cracking Beatlesque pop songs.

Squeezed in between higher profiled releases he was involved in from both Grimms and Monty Python, it seems the album got lost in the shuffle. 

In fact, it almost feels as if Innes himself didn’t really focus on it all that much; to me it seems that the LP almost plays out like a rehearsal session. It starts with a short and wonderful vignette, as if just to state what the album really will be about, but then all of the original A-side of the album is filled with what feels like warm-up material, a boogie, a blues number and so on. The band, however, are hot from the get go and Ollie Halsall in particular is a delight to the ear.

But then comes the original B-side, and here we have the actual album, one pop wonder after the other. Fittingly, the side begins with the title track, and what a masterful song it is; starting with the heartfelt lyric about the idiot, then changing tack and turning into something from Sgt Pepper. 

And frankly, every track on the B-side is brilliant. My favourite may even be the somewhat shuffling ‘This Love Of Ours’, sounding a bit like an outtake from the Wings album ‘Venus and Mars’ if that album only had been recorded two years earlier.

Unfortunately, as if Neil had somehow forgotten how short and LP is or how many sides it has, the whole thing then ends all too quickly, tellingly with ‘Singing A Song Is Easy’.

I say tellingly, because intentional disregard of quality control is almost a hallmark for Neil Innes; he was so talented and inspiration came to him seemingly so easy, that he took it all just as it came. That is also why he (allegedly) described the album sessions himself like this: “If a track didn’t happen after four or five run-throughs we dropped it and went on to another one.”

If someone had been there to exercise stricter control, things would most likely have been different. When Innes a few years later made the Rutles album, he had to mimic the Beatles’ quality standards, hence that album is great from start to finish. So great in fact, that in the end lawyers forced him to hand over the song writing credits to Lennon & McCartney, despite none of the songs actually copying a Beatles song in any technical sense. It sounds crazy but it is true.

But this reissue also has a quite worthwhile set of bonus tracks, consisting of singles from the 1973-75 period.

I for one am very glad to get to hear “Music From Rawlinson’s End”. Although it is an instrumental track, I am a bit of a sucker for anything and everything connected to Vivian Stanshall’s Rawlinson’s End project!

The disc also contains a couple of other single tracks that I didn’t have; and the greatest find among those has to be ‘What Noise Annoys A Noisy Oyster’, which shamelessly rhymes “oyster” with “moisture”. Pure genius!

You need an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano. Maybe you just don’t know it.

Chinofeldy make staying at home worthwhile

Joe Kane and Marco Rea have teamed up as Chinofeldy to make lockdown pop for these strange times together with self-isolating friends across the world. 

Their new single, ‘Stay Home’ has an incredibly Beatlesque hook of a melody that will melt your heart in less than three seconds. If it doesn’t, you have a serious issue, because it means that lump in your chest is really a stone.

This is the type of song that makes staying at home worthwhile: It is simple and catchy, yet impossible to tire of even if you put it on endless repeat. Pure genius.

So what if it is unashamedly retro? Now that we are all isolated in our homes, time has literally stopped. We might as well let a little sunshine in and smile like it is 1967 all over again: The Beatles reached out to the world via satellite to over 400 million people with ‘All You Need Is Love’. Now we have the Internet. And hand sanitizer.

I want to stay home 

With the rest of the world 

Hold invisible hands 

Hope you washed them as well

Chinofeldy is a bit of an underground supergroup by the way. If you haven’t heard their other projects, start with Marco’s amazing solo album ‘Wallpaper Music’ and Joe’s first Dr. Cosmo’s Tape Lab album. Then go on from there!

But before that, don’t miss out on the ‘Stay Home’ video, it’s every bit as warm and fun as the song!

Instant classic from Zopp

0018453064_10
Andrea Moneta, a shape-shifting teapot and Ryan Stevenson of Zopp

First I think: “National Health bootleg”… but then I change my mind: “No that can’t be, the sound quality is too good.” Then I look in my iTunes library and see that I am accidentally listening to a promo copy of a new album I had not gotten around to playing because I suffer from an untrendy aversion to the MP3 format. 

But if it takes inadvertently being exposed to lossy compression in order to discover music that is this good, then so be it.

If you love Canterbury music like I do, then you will immediately warm to the self-titled Zopp debut album, which not only includes contributions from people like Theo Travis but also unashamedly state its Kentish intent from the get-go.

But simultaneously, you may also be protective of that scene and ready to violently dismiss stuff that emulates the surface but fails to provide real substance.

Recently, it seems like only Italian bands really nail this; Homunculus Res, Alco Frisbass and Brežnev Fun Club (although they admittedly aim for a different genre).

However, Zopp’s debut ticks the right boxes in the right way. While sounding very familiar, it remains in control of its own destiny and stands tall with its own compositions.

Zopp is essentially the creation of Nottingham twentysomething Ryan Stevenson. Or should I say, it is my understanding that he was that when he started out on a journey towards this debut album that would last over a decade. Much happened along the way; Ryan Stevenson became an award winning composer of documentary film scores, and others joined the Zopp project, such as the aforementioned Travis, but also drummer Andrea Moneta from Italian band Leviathan and The Tangent’s Andy Tillison.

As a result, this sounds like a real band effort. Maybe it really is; I have no idea if they are actually playing together or if this is the result of files having been sent back and forth over the internet. But the point is that it sounds organic, and it has that hallmark Canterbury lightness of touch and coherence that probably is related to being well-rehearsed.

It really is just beautiful.

And did I say I was Swedish? Hope that won’t spoil it all, but how can I not love a Canterbury album with such a reference? The first track, ‘Swedish Love’, is a well-chosen opener, as it is possibly the most deferential track of them all. It is pretty smart to start with such a short and whimsical thing that lures me in – and then to pull my ears further in with the longer and more complex ‘Before The Light’.

The music then gradually moves towards songs that while never straying extremely far from their influences nevertheless offer up more individualistic perspectives; both in the sense that they add other musical components, but also in the sense that they are obviously flowing from the pen of a single person. Ryan Stevenson’s compositions have a slightly solitary and introverted feel to them, and as a consequence the pace is sometimes slower than what you might expect after the first few tracks.

At times I am reminded a bit of Karda Estra, there is a similar earnestness and sense of discovery here.

One can only hope that Ryan Stevenson doesn’t get too influenced by all the attention among his elder peers that this album is certain to earn him, and that he continues down his own path. With this album, he has already made an indelible mark, and hopefully that sets him free to explore rather than suffer under the burden of trying to repeat this success.

An instant classic – if something that has been ten years in the making can be called instant!

The 15 best albums of Q1 2020

Joss Cope
Joss Cope makes an album of the year – photo by Graveyard Virtanen

With large parts of the world in lockdown and the music industry with its reliance on concerts for income being hit harder than most, now is a good time to spend some quality isolation time with albums and forget about that Spotify playlist of instant pleasures.

While you technically can stream full albums, I would urge you to buy as much as you ever can on Bandcamp, since they pay more to the artists than any other online platform. I also take that as an excuse to introduce more than ten top albums this quarter.

But while I am still in unpaid promotion mode, I should mention that one of my best friends, and partner in all things Strange Days, Iwamoto-san, has recently upped his latest project Mizuki da Fantasia on Bandcamp. While the albums are not new for this quarter, their digital distribution is, and some of you might indeed like the combination of analog synths and Mellotrons with Japanese female vocals!

And now on to my favourites this quarter. In alphabetical order, as always.

cabane – grande est la maison

No this is not a Sean O’Hagan album, but you could have fooled me. Although he is only an arranger, just like on Susan James’ ‘Sea Glass’ from 2015, his presence looms large and the result is even more mesmerising here than on that album.

In fact, Sean has co-written two of the tracks, the LP intro song ‘Tu ne joueras plus à l’amour’ and also the duet ‘By the sea’, with Thomas Jean Henri Van Cottom. They are obvious highlights, but the quality is quite high throughout, despite the fact that the male singer is Bonnie Prince Billy, someone I wouldn’t necessarily listen to in other contexts. The female vocals are very nice and are handled by This Is The Kit songstress Kate Stables.

Thomas Jean Henri is from Belgium and it seems he has been active as a musician and producer since the mid 90s, but I haven’t heard any of his previous releases.

You need to get the CD-R version of this album by the way, since it starts with a track not available elsewhere, ‘Qu’as tu gardé de notre amour?’ Else the answer to that question might well be: This song!

Euros Childs – Gingerbread House Explosion

OK, this isn’t Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, the band Euros had when he was young and full of dreams. But although he may not be as young anymore, the dreams are still there. And the music. And the humor. 

Just like with the Gorky’s, Euros continues to pay tribute to Canterbury bands. And what could be a better way than to take a sweet melody and a text about the moon and use it to make fun of Richard Branson? Although – or maybe because – Branson started Virgin Records, he wasn’t always popular with the musicians: Kevin Ayers seduced his wife, and Mike Oldfield had a go at him on his Amarok album. But Euros takes a more naive – and funnier – approach!

If that isn’t enough for you, the album is available as a free high quality download on his website. Irresistible.

Joss Cope – Indefinite Particles

Although ‘Unrequited Lullabies’ from 2017 was a great surprise and made my top ten list of that year, I have to say that ‘Indefinite Particles’ is even better. You can read my full review here.

Having grown up on music from the 60s and early 70s, and having been part of the punk and post punk scenes, Joss channels all of that and moulds it into something that is simultaneously timeless and very personal. The melodies are great and the lyrics are even better.  Although not necessarily straightforward, the texts touch on many burning issues, not least the climate crisis. But rather than whine, Cope makes you think constructively in these dystopic times, while managing to simultaneously be quite Lewis Carrollesqe and whimsical.

One for the ages. Unmissable!

The Dowling Poole – See You, See Me

I have a soft spot for Willie Dowling that won’t go away, and have followed him from his glam rock outset in The Grip, to Honeycrack, Jackdaw 4 and onwards. And that I like Jon Poole goes without saying. (Although I have no interest in the Wildhearts, a band they have both played in.)

‘See You, See Me’ is an album driven by protest against the rise of anti-democratic politicians around the world. And it is quite inspired; ‘See You, See Me’ is their best album so far. 

Messrs Dowling and Poole play strutty, high octane pop that kind of crescendoes all the time. As it is overly energetic and jam-packed with vocals and choruses, it can be a bit tiresome to hear at first, but gets easier with repeated listening.

They are incredibly talented and many of their twists and turns are as memorable as they are unexpected. And once you start finding your way around their sonic mazes you are already humming along and can’t let go anymore.

Dungen – Dungen Live

I have never been a fan of live albums. Why do people want to hear lesser versions of songs, in worse sound quality, while neither being able to feel the energy on the floor nor sharing a beer with your friends? Sorry, I don’t get it. 

But ‘Dungen Live’ is something completely different. Rather than the actual songs, we get the improvisations and bridges – all the stuff that the studio albums don’t provide. And there is no attempt to hide the piecemeal approach; sections cut from one to the other without much ado, hardly even a fadeout/fadein. 

But with this kind of quality, there is no need for pimping. 

Reine Fiske’s guitar playing is brilliantly wide-eyed throughout, and although these tracks are jams, there’s is a keen melodic sensibility from the whole band, not least the keyboards. Very Nordic and very poetic. An instant classic.

Eyeless in Gaza – Ink Horn / One Star

Back in 1981, Caught In Flux was one of my absolute favourite albums. It opened my ears to the full potential of creativity that the post-punk scene had unleashed. 

Since then, I have tried to keep up with everything that Martyn Bates and and Pete Becker do, either solo or jointly as Eyeless in Gaza; we are talking dozens of albums. And amazingly, despite their signature sound with Pete’s rhythms and Martyn’s otherworldly vocals floating on top of synths and keyboard sounds, they never seem to run out of ideas.

On the contrary, ‘Ink Horn / One Star’ is inspired and explorative – and surprisingly full of pent-up tension. A fantastic record that is every bit as good as that album that changed my life almost 40 years ago. It was officially released late in December 2019, but it is too good to ignore just because it isn’t strictly speaking a 2020 album!

Bill Fay – Countless Branches

My favourite Bill Fay album will forever be his collection of 60s demos ‘From The Bottom Of An Old Grandfather Clock’, although his albums from the 70s were also exceptional. 

However, I have been a bit slow in warming to his re-emergence as an active musician in the 2010s. His records have been good, but I just haven’t found myself wanting to put them on very often. However, it feels like Fay has reached the logical conclusion of his trajectory on ‘Countless Branches’: Everything that isn’t absolutely necessary has been peeled away and discarded, and left is the very essence of his music. Often that means just a voice and a piano, but it works incredibly well. There is a bonus disc with slightly more arranged versions of a couple of the tracks – and they actually pale in comparison!

Field Music – Making A New World

On ‘Making A New World’, the Brewis brothers seem to move full circle and get closer to their early albums; the music is more angular and arty and the funk has been bottled up and stowed away in a single track, ‘Only In A Man’s World’, sounding very much like a lost Talking Heads song. Stylistically, it might have gone down better on David Brewis 2019 School of Language solo album ’45’ – about another man’s world, namely Trump – but it is nevertheless a great track.

Whereas the earlier albums were full of charm and pop-sensibility, you get the feeling that here the band is in full control of their powers. That loss of innocence makes the album a bit harder to love, but even harder to dismiss. 

Originally commissioned by the Imperial War Museum, the album is an ambitious 19-track conceptual song-cycle about the first world war. But that would be impossible to figure out if you didn’t know it. Progressive pop may be the album’s core, but it also blends in some wistful mellow sections that work nicely as conduits for emotional time travel.

Although brand new, this album, together with all previous albums are now available as pay-what-you-want downloads on Bandcamp, so don’t miss them! 

The Greek Theatre – When seasons change

I suppose it is just as much the name as the music, but when I listen to this, I can’t avoid thinking about the UK band Nirvana. They not only share a Greek connection but also  maximalist approach and vocals that have a dreamtime feeling. 

On this third album, the core duo of Sven Fröberg and Fredrick Persson inhabit a parallell 1970s universe that expands with light speed in all directions while remaining peaceful and pastoral at its core. Beautiful!

The Homesick – The Big Exercise

After its 60s and 70s heyday, Nederpop has a lot to live up to, but on their second album, the Homesick certainly do. Not that it sounds like it did back then at all. But there is abundant sense of invention and melody here. And while you can easily spot influences such as Field Music and other art pop bands, there is also a lot of fun going on. While definitely a pop album, it only reveals its charms after a couple of listens, so hang in there and you will be amply rewarded!

Dan Lyons – SubSuburbia

After listening to this and being incredibly impressed, I am thinking that I need to give Fat White Family another chance, since since Dan used to play with them. If it is in any way similar, it must good!

What you get here is a strange but interesting collision of styles. Imagine a classic 70s British eccentric fronting an introverted 80s post-punk outfit and you might get a hint of what I mean. Then combine that with a strong dose of modern decadence – something Dan might well have picked up as a member of Pete Doherty’s touring band.

Mothboxer – Accelerator

David Ody is back with another Mothboxer album, and, reliably, it’s a keeper. Whereas the songwriting still borrows an idea or two from the XTC songbook, the music itself is based on fat and rhythmic guitar riffs. Add to that a layered and spacey production and you get a heady mixture.

While maybe not as instantly hummable as the previous proper album ‘Open Sky’ from 2018 (depending on how you count last year’s ‘Time Capsule Vol. 1’) there are nevertheless tracks that jump right out at you, such as the short and sweet ‘Under Water’, the slow-starting and dreamy ‘Thinking About It’ or the power poppy ‘Funny How It Is’. 

But after a couple of listens, tracks like the brooding and hazy ‘Any Time’ also start revealing their considerable charms!

Pea Green Boat – The Unforgettable Luncheon

If you have read this blog before, then you probably know that I am a big fan of the Godley and Creme era of 10cc. And if you know that, then you know that I love this album too. Playful and all over the place, yet serious and focused when it comes to hooks and structure. An album that might be as challenging to the listener as to the musicians trying to nail all those twists and turns, but nevertheless a minor masterpiece. Without doubt one of the best albums of the year. Read my full review here.

Rustin Man – Clockdust

When Paul Webb reappeared after a 17 year absence from the record business with a great introspective record that didn’t feel rusty at all, few probably expected him to follow up just a year later with an even better record. Yet here he is, and just as last year there is a Robert Wyattesque shimmer of melancholia over the whole thing which makes it irresistible for me.

Oh, yes, you are supposed to mention that Webb used to be the bassist in Talk Talk in reviews like this as well. So there you go!

Wax Machine – Earthsong of Silence

This must be my greatest new find this quarter. Wax Machine come from Brighton by way of Brazil and play with their ears to the ground and their minds attuned to the vibes of the cosmos. In their attitude to music, they remind my of psychedelic hippies Jouis, but their music is more in a jazz vein. It is all beautiful and quite wistful, with lots of flute and an unusually melodic drummer.

There is no heaviness, on the contrary this is all played with a featherlight touch. The music is primarily instrumental, although the vocal tracks are very nice and humorous: The charming and very British ‘Time Machine’ is a prime example, and it puts a smile on my face that is so broad that I really have to make an effort to pull the corners of my mouth down again.

And the refrain on the only really noisy track here obviously has both vocalists screaming “Silence” at the top of their lungs. That goes without saying.

Too bad that the album is released on US label Beyond Is Beyond, since that puts a physical copy behind the various tax walls that our protectionist leaders are erecting everywhere. By the way, debuting on a US label reminds me of another British band with a very similar name… oh, yeah, the Soft Machine. I am sure they know about them.


Best live album Q1 2020

Field Music – Live at Tapestry

If you have read this far, you are aware that I have already had one Field Music album in the best of Q1 list. You also know that I said I don’t like live albums, despite already listing one there.

Nevertheless, I can’t resist this one, recorded in 2006 almost right in the middle of their first two albums. OK, the versions here aren’t as good as what they put on those groundbreaking albums. But this live session does manage to evoke the same spine tingling magic as on the studio recordings. Angular and spiky at one moment, soft and tuneful in the next; Field Music really were the best band in the world at that point in time.

And, importantly, we get to hear almost half of the second album (well, five out of twelve tracks to be exact) recorded almost a full year before it was released.

Again, as with all Field Music albums on Bandcamp right now, it is available at any price you choose.


Best EP Q1 2020

Real Terms – Housework

Any band that lists Hot Club De Paris as one of their key inspirations should get your pulse racing. And the Real Terms debut EP is indeed brilliant. Full of bouncy pop melodies, yet played with a math rock approach, their music is thorny and convoluted while remaining eminently catchy. As an effect they create a sound that paradoxically combines confinement and freedom at the same time.

My only concern is that two of the songs on this EP have been available digitally since 2017, and the track ‘Tightrope Walkers’ was released as a free download in October 2019, making ‘Esperanza’ and ‘Scared of Everyone’ the only new numbers here.

Maybe this indicates how difficult it is to write material of this caliber, and if so, will we eventually see a whole album of new material? I certainly hope so!

Jeff Lynne’s psych-pop masterpiece reissued

IDLE-RACE-scaled

For many, Jeff Lynne’s best song is without doubt ‘Mr. Blue Sky’. In fact, a lot of people probably just know that one song. It was initially on the E.L.O. double album ‘Out Of The Blue’ before being spun off as a single, and over the years it has almost taken on a life of its own.

I remember buying ‘Out Of The Blue’ on its release back in 1977 and finding it a bit too mainstream, and even now I much prefer their debut (with Roy Wood still in the band).

Nevertheless, the Beatlesque and whimsical ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ is a great psych-pop confectionery. But ironically, despite being one of the key tracks on that over 10 million selling album and being featured in TV shows and voted “Anthem Of The Midlands” and what have you, it is only one of several such Jeff Lynne songs. In fact, he made a whole album full of ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ soundalikes that are just as Beatlesque and whimsical. 

That album is called ‘The Birthday Party’ and has sold next to nothing, which is unfathomable. If people are so addicted to ‘Mr. Blue Sky’, why don’t they all rush out and buy a whole album of the stuff?

‘The Birthday Party’ is an aptly named album, because it marks the album format debut for Lynne, with his then band the Idle Race. In addition, it really does feel like a party – a rambunctious mood runs through the LP, and it is difficult not to be charmed by all the off-kilter pop hooks.

Although definitely more lightweight both in structure and production than what the Beatles had moved on to at the time, ‘The Birthday Party’ certainly delivers in the songwriting department.

In one of the interviews I made with Jeff Lynne several years ago, this is how he characterised the Idle Race: “Very quirky, very unusual and nothing like what was going on at the time, really.

Jeff Lynne and Michael
Me interviewing Jeff Lyne in 2015

‘The Birthday Party’ has been so neglected that the only previous proper CD reissue is the 2007 Japanese paper sleeve edition; other than that it has always been reissued as a twofer together with the more uneven self-titled 1969 follow-up, or in some other compilation context. For this reason, it is great that David Wells has now assembled a definitive CD reissue for his ever-excellent Grapefruit label.

However, my one long-standing complaint about Grapefruit is the consequent lack of source information. This time round, the promo material states that at least the hitherto never reissued mono version of the LP has been “taken from the original masters” so let us assume that this is true. Although the original mono release isn’t extremely expensive on Discogs, despite its rarity, it is great to have all in one place here, in the best possible sound quality.

Apart from the album in both mono and stereo, all related singles are also here, including a few alternate versions that first saw the light on the ‘Back To The Story’ compilation in 1996. The only track that is reissued here for the first time is an electronically reprocessed stereo mix of ‘Sitting In My Tree’ from the 1976 vinyl reissue of the album. The track was in mono also on the stereo version of the original album, but the remix from 1976 is included here as a bonus track. Just to be complete. 

In conclusion, this all happened a decade before ‘Mr. Blue Sky’. When Jeff Lynne decided to revisit the psychedelic pop of his youth, it became a mega hit, yet for some reason he did it only that one time. Which makes ‘The Birthday Party’ all the more worthwhile.

Joss Cope goes down the rabbit hole

Joss Cope - Indefinite Particles 2020

Have you ever wondered why it is that most artists lose their creativity as they get older? Regardless of how good their early albums were, at some point the quality drops and never seems to recover.

That is one reason Joss Cope’s surprise solo debut album “Unrequited Lullabies” caught me completely off guard. I mean, he was born all the way back in 1962 and put out his first single in 1985 with his then band Freight Train. What could an old man like that still have to contribute? A hell of a lot as it turned out: That album was one of my top ten picks for 2017.

What if ageing is not at all related to diminishing creativity, and that eventual quality loss is instead a simple effect of output volume?

In that case, Joss still has a lot of musical mileage ahead: Although he was involved in the nascent Zoo scene around the Crucial Three (brother Julian, Ian McCulloch and Pete Wylie) in Liverpool and later played with many of the Creation Records bands, a bit like a Zelig in British post-punk psychedelia, he has very little to show for that in terms of recorded output.

And sure enough, new solo album “Indefinite Particles” is even better than the debut. Just like the previous one, it was recorded with Finnish musicians during short family trips to Helsinki. Juxtaposing influences from the 60s, 80s and 90s, while adding smooth vocals over a relaxed band sound and quirky lyrics, it is in fact something of a stroke of genius: both timeless and surprisingly forward looking.

Spanning everything from 50s rock’n’roll pastiche (“Mad King Ludwig”) to protest songs (“Who Are You Trying To Kid?”), the diverse themes are at all times joined at the hip by a warm, psychedelic production and a sense of absurd humor. 

Much of it is quite personal. Inspiration from his days working as a climate activist with Greenpeace shines through on songs like “From A Great Height”, as well as a probable reference to the mental collapse that lead to him ultimately quitting the organisation on “Healed”. There is even a song about his then as of yet unborn first child, “She’s Going To Change Your World”, who incidentally turned out to be a boy instead.

But “Radium Came” is right now probably my favourite song. As Joss explained to me in an interview I did for Mono Magasin, it is just anagrams, pure nonsense.

Radium came – madame Curie; twelve plus one – eleven plus two; Howard Stern – wonder trash; slot machines – cash lost in ‘em

It goes on like that, yet manages to feel sincere. Joss Cope describes it as “creating meaning by accident” and in doing so he pulls the listener down a Lewis Carrol styled rabbit hole.

And for that very reason, he is more “psychedelic” than 99% of what is labeled like that today.

But compared to Alice’s Wonderland, maybe the nature in his is a bit more dramatic? And the sky a bit higher, the air more shimmering?

The most English pop album ever recorded in Finland. And an amazing one at that!

Esa Lehporturo, Ville Raasakka, Puka Oinonen and Joss Cope

Esa Lehporturo, Ville Raasakka, Puka Oinonen and Joss Cope

Photo: Graveyard Virtanen

Pea Green Boat dish out sonic smorgasbord

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Roger Heathers is a 27 year old multiinstrumentalist living in Cornwall who seems to have been totally bitten by the 10cc bug. His music starts with a jump, stops on a heartbeat, slows down and stretches out; and then goes off in the least expected  direction. 

Some will call him too clever by half. But as far as I am concerned, you can never be too clever if you are this full of pop hooks.

One of my most pleasant discoveries last year was the plethora of releases Roger has put out, both as a solo artist and as Pea Green Boat together with vocalist Joe O’Neill. A lot of what I heard was very good, with the standout being the 2019 solo album ‘Next Week In Münster’.  Yet as good as that album was, it still held the promise of even better things to come. 

Well, with the new Pea Green Boat album ‘An Unforgettable Luncheon’ Roger and Joe have delivered on that promise, and made something that can only be described as fantastic.

But I should warn you. Although the album serves up mouth watering morsels and juicy delicacies from their musical crossover kitchen, the effect of stuffing the whole smorgasbord of aural delights into your ears is one of gluttony. Taking in the whole 50 minutes in one sitting can make you queasy.

My play count tells me I have listened to the album a full 16 times in order to write this review. And while I may be a bit slow on the uptake, that is still a considerable effort in order to get a grip. My point is that while this is just pop, it is nevertheless overwhelming at first and you need to take it in bit by bit.

‘An Unforgettable Luncheon’ is vocally dextrous, full of energy and not afraid to take in syrup, pretention, Disney schmalz, and doo-wop harmony barber shop pop. There is at times a pastiche feel worthy of Godley & Creme or Roy Wood. 

But references to this kind of flippant music soon veer off the highway and into the 70s undergrowth. I would point to Brian Protheroe’s masterful ‘I/You’, maybe with the added vocal fragility from Mike Batt protégé Vaughan Thomas on his sole, self-titled album. 

An even closer fit is the most ignored art pop classic of that decade, namely the final mad dash by Fickle Pickle bandmates and Morgan Studios stalwarts Cliff Wade and Geoff Gill as the Beaver Brothers on the album ‘Ventriloquisms’. Funnily enough that album serenades a character called ‘Bertrand’ whereas here ‘Bertram’ gets a similar treatment. I am sure it is just coincidence. And just like on that album, I have the nagging feeling that there is a unifying concept behind all of this, although too convoluted to pinpoint. I am sure that’s a coincidence too.

The first four singles from the album are simply the first four tracks. But this is not a case of front-loading: anything here could be a single. Or nothing. I mean, these are really small pop symphonies and should be heard in context to really shine. 

While rooted in the 70s, this is not music only of the past. On the contrary, albums like this could not be made on what I am certain is a shoestring budget without modern technology. In fact, it shows just how far bedroom pop has come.

Lyrically, it is also up to date – and to data – starting the luncheon with a robotic chef and the climate crisisesque opening lines “Hey hey, it’s a beautiful day / We never see the sun / But we don’t need it anyway”. And final track ‘Spirit Valve’ offers up the lines: “The internet has ravished me / Transparently / Of means of escaping what I can’t control / And the feeling of knowing I can’t be alone.”

There are also a few notable contemporaries with a similar sound. Paul Steel on his wilsonesque ‘Carousel Kites’ from 2017/2018 immediately comes to mind. Another obvious comparison would be the 2017 album ‘Who Folds First’ by the Blood Rush Hour.

These more obscure references are unfortunately the most fitting, which makes my review a slightly harder sell. However, if you have found your way to the Popgruppen blog, I am willing to bet that you will cherish ‘An Unforgettable Luncheon’ as much as I do. An instant classic. Go and get it!