Instant classic from Zopp

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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

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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!

The 2010s: the decade when algorithms and play counts took over music

So here we are. It is the last day of the decade. I must confess that I have never looked towards a new decade with more trepidation before. Where will the raging, protectionistic nationalism exemplified by Trump, England and Putin lead? For one thing, I suppose it will mean I finally stop buying physical records because import taxes from the UK will go through the roof. Is that the point when I stop writing about music too? It might be.

But even more than nationalism, I fear what the climate crisis will do to the world. Our house is on fire, yet we are all focused on who gets to play in the garden.

From a musical perspective, I hope that this will be the decade when artists find their way back to broader collaboration; there was no musical movement focusing specifically on the big issues during the 2010s.

Instead, this decade just took the trend of parallell revivals from the previous decade into overdrive. 60s music obviously, but also soul, funk, synth pop, hard rock, new wave, punk. Seriously, everything. Jazz came back in style, even prog rock was allowed in from the cold.

If you want to be positive about it, you could say that listeners became more eclectic and open-minded. However, that was driven by algorithms rather than curiosity, since the 2010s were really about new distribution and not new music.

Spotify and its ilk took over the scene and automated our playlists, killed the album and replaced it with… what actually? With 30 second song stubs, that’s what! This was the decade when everyone tried to make music that would capture the listeners attention for 30 seconds, as that is what’s needed to get a stream counted as income.

But in the middle of all of this, there was also marvellous new music that didn’t sound like anything else, that dared to experiment and challenge. It was probably more marginalised than ever before, but it was truly incredible. 

And it is from those margins that I pull my decade in music. But I am not doing this based on preference, memory or even judgement. In order to keep aligned with the surveillance capitalistic, algorithm-over-free-choice sign of the times, I am listing my top ten album list in play count order. 

The only common sense intervention I have made here is that I have excluded too glaring multiple occurrences of the same artist from the list. Finally, I won’t bother you with the detailed play counts, since they are very close to each other after the first two albums in the list. Also in this age of the 30 second stream count, there are no actual album play counts; they need to be calculated as averages of all the songs on a specific album.

 

Sternpost – Anti-clock (2018)

Anti-clock was by far my most played album this decade; I played the A-side 268 times and the B-side 258 times. In this age of superabundance, nothing even comes close to that even in my nerdy world.

However it is as fitting as it is frustrating to have this as my top album of the decade, because nothing is more marginalised than ‘Anti-clock’. It was pressed in 109 copies, and was only available as a digital download for a very limited time. Very few people have heard it and that is a real shame. 

So, my New Year’s resolution is actually going to be to try to get this masterpiece reissued on CD, in Japan. I am not saying it will succeed, but watch this space!

This is what I wrote about Anti-clock back in 2018: “… my top pick for 2018 is an album that makes fragmentation its core idea. Like the soundtrack to a film about a world where humans never regained language capacity after being punished for building the tower of Babel, it is an album where the narrative is pushed to the fore but the narrators have lost the ability to communicate. 

It also grinds musical languages such as ambient, experimental, electronic, musique concrète and progressive rock into a garbled whole.” 

anti-clock [24-44]

The person behind Sternpost is Petter Herbertsson, and he would have pulled even further away from the rest if I had included his other releases here as well. The most notable of them is ‘Barrikad’ by Petter’s band Testbild! from 2011. Another must have album, for sure.

 

Brežnev Fun Club – Il Misantropo Felice (2015)

Although a distant second, I still played ‘Il Misantropo Felice’ almost half as many times as ‘Anti-clock’, which is quite impressive given the very challenging content of this album. 

To be quite honest, this is totally outside of my reach intellectually, and I would struggle to even give it the right label, so I wouldn’t even dare to try to review it.

Suffice to say that it is rooted in contemporary classical art music, but adds a warm layer of strutty melodic twists and hooks that seem to come directly out of the pop world. Although the instrumentation here is clearly more indebted to the classical world with French horns, flutes, oboe, violin, tuba, cello and you name it, the effect it has on me is very much the same as playing Henry Cow, Matching Mole or something like ‘Hot Rats’ by Frank Zappa.

Given the sheer complexity and scale of this album, it is no surprise that it was painstakingly recorded over a period of three years; a herculean effort struggling under a low budget, I would assume.

So yes, I am totally unable to describe this music, but don’t blame me for putting the album on this list, I am just a slave to my behavioural data, exactly like the rest of you!

 

Sanguine Hum – The Weight of the World (2013)

My overall play count of Sanguine Hum is much higher than this third ranking indicates. The problem is that all of their albums were released from 2010 onwards, and I have played them almost equally much. In fact, I have played ‘Songs For Days’ even more. That was released as a Sanguine Hum album in 2016 even more – but originally trickled out in 2007, so that disqualifies it.

‘The Weight of the World’ is a lush and brooding start of a series of concept albums, the first chapter in the revolving Buttered Cat saga. With this album, Sanguine Hum manage to take everything that could be considered pretentious with prog rock, turns it inside out while literally passing it through a time machine, and come out laughing in the end. Amazing and very British in the best of senses.

 

The Sea Nymphs – On The Dry Land (2016)

In all honesty, this was not really on my radar, primarily because it is technically an archival release recorded by Mr & Mrs Smith and William D Drake during the same sessions that produced the Sea Nymphs debut album back in 1992. 

Instead, on my manually compiled list, I had William D Drake’s solo album ‘Rising of the Lights’ (2011). But who am I, a mere human, to argue with the machines? 

In any case, ‘On The Dry Land’ is a full album of original and hitherto unpublished material. And although decidedly darker in tone, just like Drake’s solo album it is an utterly crazy, genre-straddling, murky and creaky yet baroque odyssey into the unknown. In a class of its own.

 

North Sea Radio Orchestra – Dronne (2016)

Again, I am beaten by my own behaviour here. Although I love ‘Dronne’ and would have selected it over their 2011 album ‘I A Moon’ even though that is brilliant too, I initially went for NSRO band leader Craig Fortnam’s second solo folk album as Arch Garrison, ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’ from 2014, since I think it is potentially even more unique. But that is only because I am comparing ‘Dronne’ to the magical albums that the NSRO did already back in the 2000s. Taken on its own, it is nevertheless a masterpiece.

My original (Swedish) review of the album had the following to say: ‘Dronne’ is a river that flows through the southwest of France, and the music here is like the sound of that river; it ripples, swirls and billows. If you take out an ’n’ you get drone and suddenly the notes flow like the sound of an organic raga.”

Maybe that sounds better in Swedish, but you I am sure you get the drift (pun intended.)

 

Stars In Battledress – In Droplet Form (2014)

Back in 2012, I had dinner with William D Drake in Paris as he was rehearsing for the musical Poppea (a modern reworking of the Monteverdi opera ‘The Coronation of Poppea’) featuring Marc Almond among others. 

During that dinner I remember him referring several times to Richard and James Larcombe as “The Amazing Larcombe Brothers” almost capitalised like that as if it was their stage name. And it might well be, because they are truly amazing and I love basically every album that they appear on as collaborators or otherwise. 

However, as a duo, their stage name is Stars In Battledress, and ‘In Droplet From’ from 2014 is their classic second album; angular an eerie, yet beautiful and melodic. If this is pop music, it might come from a universe that Philip K. Dick invented.

Richard Larcombe currently has a band called Lost Crowns, and their 2019 album ‘Every Night Something Happens’ was my album of the year pick for 2019. Still, it had a slightly lower play count than ‘In Droplet Form’, so I had to take it out of this list to not double up artists too much. But you must check that one out too, needless to say.

 

Tom O. C Wilson – Tell A Friend (2017)

Each time I play ‘Tell A Friend’ I am totally struck with awe over how incredibly ambitious yet simultaneously full of quick-footed invention it is. It has that fantastic capacity to turn on a dime while remaining perfectly tuneful that only a few albums I know of can manage, notably ‘How Dare You’ by 10cc and ‘Rotters’ Club’ by Hatfield and the North, probably the two best albums that I have. But just like those two albums are totally different from each other ‘Tell A Friend’ sounds neither like them nor like anything else. Tom’s voice is very much in the forefront establishing a pop feel, while the music sputters and fizzes like something from Henry Cow. Yet somehow the combination is just obvious and natural.

When I play this album I immediately get the urge to sing along, because, well for me this is very much a singalong album. Yet even though it is one of my most played albums of the decade, I still am not even near following Tom’s vocals!

Despite being an absolutely groundbreaking album, it is still basically ignored by everyone, which is totally unfathomable. Even the Soundcloud link below has a lower total play count than I have on my own play list. Come on world, you can do better than that!

https://soundcloud.com/tomocwilson/sets/tell-a-friend-1

 

Karda Estra – Infernal Spheres (2017)

Although the album is actually subtitled ‘A Solar Odyssey’, a friend of mine said that ‘Infernal Spheres’ sounds like National Health in slow motion, and I thought it was so true that it became the title of my original review of it. 

But even though there is a lot of Canterbury here, intended or otherwise, this album also contains the exact opposite of the hallmark warmth and humor of that genre. Because here Karda Estra are making music from outer space, using sounds that are ultimately cold, and desolate and aiming for a structure that is as incomprehensible as the universe itself.

Such contradictions of terms often make for exciting listening and that is certainly the case here. I still can’t say I really understand what is going on here, which is probably why I have been playing it so much!

 

Everything Everything – Man Alive (2010)

When hearing this album back in 2010, it truly was the album that gave me confidence in music for the new decade. It sounded just like the future I wanted but hadn’t been able to imagine. Convoluted and overly complex, stopping, starting and turning wildly, yet full of life and catchy tunes. Although I have already mentioned 10cc once in this post, here was another band that had that feeling of pure invention that is so rare and magical.

I continued to eagerly purchase every new release by Everything Everything throughout the decade, including the name-your-price live album only released eleven days ago, that includes a rendition of the fabulous ‘Leave The Engine Room’ from ‘Man Alive’. But sadly, nothing they have done since even comes close to the astonishing energy and uniqueness on display on their debut. Most of it was still was good but just didn’t have that electric spark. In that sense ‘Man Alive’ reminds me of ‘Swoon’ by the Prefab Sprout, a debut album that remains utterly peerless in the pop world as far as I am concerned – even this album pales in that comparison.

 

Frisk Frugt – Den Europæiske Spejlbue (2015)

I am very proud of my behavioural self that lets me end this data based list of my ten most played albums with ‘Den Europæiske Spejlbue’. Not only is this very close to home, since it was made in Copenhagen, a city I literally can see from my neighborhood, but also because it is a listen that is as mind opening as it is unique. 

Although several people appear on this double LP, it is very much a solo effort by experimental crossover musician and composer Anders Lauge Meldgaard. He wrote the whole thing and played most of it, partly on instruments he built himself. When you put on the record, you immediately feel like you are entering a fantasy toy shop from the 1950s where everything whirrs and purrs and hums. And even though it certainly doesn’t continue as a record played on children’s toys, it remains a veritable wonderland of sounds throughout and keeps that friendly toy shop atmosphere. The songs are hymnal and somehow very big. On Discogs the genre for this album is listed as “Jazz, Rock, Pop, Classical” and the style as “Experimental” so if you ever wanted an album that describes a decade when the genre walls were finally broken through, then this is it!

 

Honorary mentions – because data is not the truth

Even though all of the above was based on actual personal play count data, you shouldn’t take that as the truth. Play count data, is just that: data. The truth is something much more than just stats. I could have based the play count list on tracks of course, or artists, or some other criterium, and the result would have been totally different. That is why I wan to add three albums to the above list, that were hovering just outside the bottom of the top ten list but never made it further for specific reasons.

 

Homunculus Res – Limiti All’Eguaglianza Della Parte Con Il Tutto (2013)

Homunculus Res are the Sicilian band that took Canterbury music into the 2010s like no one else. Despite their obvious English references they are also proudly Italian, taking over where Picchio Dal Pozzo left off. Even though they play complex music with many different sections and parts, and even though they like to get involved in unusual time signatures, they add the magic of infectious melodies and absurd, almost dadaistic, yet warm humour.

Their three albums appeared between 2013 and 2018, and since I love all of them, I have played them equally much and have not favoured one album enough to actually get one onto the top list. Bad behaviour on my side!

 

Regal Worm – Pig Views (2018)

Just like Homunculus Res, Regal Worm so far has made three equally excellent albums between 2013 and 2018, and just as I explained above, that works very badly if you rank albums based on play count. 

But Regal Worm has also released a wealth of singles, EPs, special tracks and special editions that work against the data driven economics of this. Suffice to say that a total play count approach would have made for an entirely different list placement.

Here is what I wrote in my review of Pig Views: “… this is the prog album you should buy if you don’t like prog rock. And if you already like prog rock, well open the windows and let in this breath of fresh air, for heaven’s sake!

Although Jarrod probably plays at least fifteen different keyboards here, there are no solos. And there’s no pretentious bullshit.

By the way did I say there is also plenty of Mellotron and that this album is the third in a trilogy? Or that the whole thing was originally planned as a concept album? And that it ends with a twenty minute suite?

Like I sad, no pretentious bullshit!”

The only thing I would like to add to that review snippet now is the name of that twenty mniute suite. It is called ‘Under den svenska vintern (During The Swedish Winter)’ which is something I am longing very much for right now as the polar caps are melting.

Ralegh Long – Hoverance (2015)

Finally, we have Ralegh Long’s absolutely beautiful album ‘Hoverance’. This really isn’t an album that I listen to with the intensity and correspondingly high frequency as other albums, but that doesn’t mean I like it any less. 

On the contrary, ‘Hoverance’. is one of those albums that are so special that you want to save them for the right occasion. And it certainly needs a special setting and mood to work, because it is very subdued, and quite brittle. It might not be all the way out there with the sound of silence of Mark Hollis’ eponymous album, but it is going in that direction. A more ample comparison might be Nick Drake – and although I worship his music I don’t play it all the time while walking the dog or sitting on the train, if you get my point.

Hence, ‘Hoverance’ is the album to play when you are in a slow and reflective mood. And when you treat it with the kind of respect it needs to feel comfortable, it opens like a flower in front of you.

 

The truth is indeed out there, but as I have tried to illustrate, it is so much more than a data point. Still, from a data-driven perspective, it is good to note that the list is now 13 albums long in total. 13 is my lucky number, so that makes it a perfect ending for me. See you in the next decade!

The world needs an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano: Neil Innes R.I.P.

I have just been told that Neil Innes is no longer with us, and I am totally devastated by this sad news. Could 2019 end much worse than this? I am not sure. What the world desperately needs right now is an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano.

Neil Innes has been called Monty Python’s songwriter – and you may remember him as the leader of Sir Robin’s minstrels in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail ’ – as well as Ron Nasty (in parody of John Lennon) in the Rutles.

However, for me, the Rutles were a great pop band more than anything else. And Innes wrote all their songs.

He was famously sued by the owners of the Beatles’ catalogue, lost the case and had to share songwriting royalties with them. But the testimony, based on minute scrutiny and comparison of the songs, actually cleared Neil Innes from plagiarism, technically speaking. Maybe the owners of the Beatles’ catalogue followed through with the lawsuit because they feared Innes’ originality more than anything else?

In memory of this great man, here is my interview with him. It was originally published in Japanese music magazine Strange Days #177, pages 57-63, August 2014.

.Neil Innes p57

Although Neil Innes has reached the respectable age of 69, he has a new Posterity Tour album with Fatso, a box set on his new So There label compiling all the Recollections CDs and is touring with the Rutles. On top of that, he is also busy composing his audio memoirs. That is a lot of activity for a man who confesses to have no more ambition as he has already been impersonated by Elvis Presley.

At the end of our chat, Innes says: ”There is no need for an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano.” Nothing could be further from the truth!

 

Fatso was in fact the original Rutles band. How did that come about?

Innes: I was making the TV show Rutland Weekend Television together with Eric Idle when drummer John Halsey rang me up and told me he was playing with this fantastic band. And I said ”Oh, you lucky thing. I’d love to go out and play live. This television is all very well, but it’s… you know, television.” So he asked me to come and play with the band.

They played in a pub every week, and I started going there. We had these little amplifiers, a very tight band and a lot of fun. One night Eric Idle and George Harrison turned up to see us, and Fatso then became the Rutland Weekend Television band.

We all drifted apart when Rutland Weekend finished. I had other things to do… and then we had the reunion tour a couple of years ago, the posterity tour, because we wanted to get together again! Roger Rettig is living in Florida and Billy Bremner is living in Sweden, so it was complicated, but Brian Hodgson got the tour organized.

Neil Innes p58

Did he also make a nicely painted bus available for the tour?

Innes: Ha ha, no, that happens in films!

 

The Rutles originally appear in a sketch on Rutland Weekend Television where you treat people against love by giving them sex…

Innes: Rutland was the smallest county in England, and the theory was that it would have the smallest television station with not much money. So all the jokes in Rutland Weekend Television were quite cheap. Since a ”A Hard Day’s Night” was black and white, sometimes speeded up, and looked like very cheap to make, I had the idea to make a parody of it. I had written a song called ”I must be in love” and Eric Idle had this sketch about a man suffering from love and an idea about a film maker who was so dull the camera would run away from him. In Eric’s mind he made the song start with me in pajamas being in hospital. We recorded the song, with Eric and another actor, David Battley. So you didn’t see Fatso in the film, you only saw John Halsey and myself.

 

But Fatso were playing the music?

Innes: Yes, absolutely. In fact, George Harrison liked that version more than the later one!

 

That episode was then shown by Eric Idle on the Saturday Night Live show in the US, and the idea came up to do a film. And you were asked to quickly do a bunch of Rutles songs.

Innes: I made two good decisions on the Rutles thing I think. One was not to listen to any Beatles songs at all when writing. Instead, I tried to remember where I was when had I heard them. For some of the early ones, I was still in school, about 16 or 17. For songs like ”Hold My Hand” I went back to those days, and thought about how relationships with girls were like and how exciting it was to put your hand in a girl’s bra. So those songs have an innocence to them.

The more psychedelic songs had to have another kind of discipline, where you can’t write any old rubbish. I knew I didn’t want to trivialize any of the Beatles songs, they are too good and I am not going to go for cheap laughs. I’m going to go for something that is… not as good but maybe equal in another way. Give the songs the respect they deserve.

And the second thing was to get Ollie Halsall, Ricky Fataar, John Halsey and myself living together very quickly as it were. We had this house in Hendon were we just rehearsed for two weeks. After the two weeks we were really tight as a band, and we went in the studio and made the whole album in ten days. The album only took ten days, including the orchestras and the overdubs and the mixing.

 

Fantastic. And I suppose those rules also eventually got you out of court?

Innes: No, there was no court, it was the bully boys. ATV Music, who had Northern Songs, had a million dollars put aside for any kind of Beatles song infringement and reacted when there were 14 songs on the album – they weren’t interested in the six that were on the film. They were saying outrageous things like ”Hold My Hand” was like ”Back In The USSR”  and ”Twist and Shout” which is the funniest thing because the Beatles didn’t write that!

My publishers said they would fight it. They got a musicologist for $5500 which was a lot of money back then and he answered all the things: ”The lyrics are different, the tune is different.”

But then the big reality thing came in, and ATV said they would take it to court anyway. My publisher suddenly realized that even though they would win, they might not get costs – and they weren’t going to risk that. They then settled out of court, very badly, and I was abandoned, really.

Neil Innes p59

Your new ”Farewell Posterity Tour”  CD, showcases five different Neil Inneses: The pastiche Neil Innes on tracks like ”Living In Hope”, secondly the pastiche that itself turns into a pop classic, like ”I Must Be In Love”, ”Doubleback Alley”, ”Cheese and Onions” and so on. The third Neil Innes is the 7th Monty Python, like on ”Elvis and the Disagreeable Backing Singers” and ”Protest Song”. The fourth Neil Innes is the straight cover artist, where you do ”Beware Of Darkness” in a really really nice way. And finally the fifth one is the pop genius in his own right, with ”Dreams Shine Through” and ”Urban Spaceman”.

Innes: All I can be is myself, even if I am five of me! Never mind the 7th Monty Python, I am the 5th Neil Innes!

In the Bonzos days we were free, we did what we liked. Music is about humanity more than anything, it’s about what it’s like to be alive. And it is not about politics, categorizing or making an ordered world. So I don’t see why you can’t write a song about anything. Shakespeare wrote dramas and comedies. If he was allowed to do it, why can’t I? So I say I do what Shakespeare did, only with better songs!!

When I was doing a one-man show, I went to this place in the middle of England, called Corby. It was a dull wintery day, drizzling with rain when I came to the theatre. And as I drove up, it said: ”Tonight: Neil Innes, Comedian?” Question mark. That sums me up!

 

I’ve suffered for my jokes, now it’s your turn!

Innes: Yes, ha ha!

Neil Innes p61

Now you have left posterity behind you and are focusing on new things?

Innes: It is very tempting to never do anything again. Late last year, a friend of mine who is writing a book on Elvis Presley e-mailed me and told me that Elvis had his own cinema, at enormous expense, and that his favourite film was ”Monty Python and The Holy Grail.” Apparently, he knew every word and could do all the voices. That makes me one of the few people on the planet to have been impersonated by Elvis Presley! It is not the other way around! So, I have done it now! I’ve got no more ambition!

But I am still very busy, because I am doing sort of audio memoirs now, mixing music and stories and things like that. Again, it is not for a mass audience release or anything in particular. The working title for this memoir is Radio Noir. Radio noir like film noir, only it is really a metaphor for the human brain. Here we all are with our little brains on top of us, and we don’t really understand anything. We know a lot, but the more we know, the less we understand it seems. Certainly in my case!

 

You have also formed your own record label So There.

Innes: Yes. I think it is probably the only way you can manage. The big record companies are… well, it is organized crime. It’s not disorganized crime, it is organized crime.

I have actually sent notice to Sony who took my Rutle songs and in America after 35 years you can have the copyright revert to you. I have done that. It is only in America, but I am making my point. That is all you can do, as a little person in this world. Not be forced around by bullies,.

 

On So There you have released a Le Ducks box of ”Recollections.” There is a DVD with Innes Book of Records clips. Do you own the copyrights to the Innes Book of Records series then? 

Innes: The DVD that is in the box set is not for sale. You buy the records and this is stuff that is out there in the public domain because people have put it out there. But we have got the very best prints we could find, so the quality is really quite good.

In fact with So There, we are looking to put out the full series, and the BBC are going to give us everything. But since we made this program with ordinary people it is difficult to contractually clear a DVD sale. I don’t know how we are going to do it, but we will try.

 

”Recollections” is now a Le Ducks box set. What is the cultural meaning of the duck?

Innes: Well, it goes right back to the Bonzos. I wanted to be a superhero called Alias Normalman, and I had my tights and my t-shirt saying Alias Normalaman. But I didn’t have anything to finish me off, you know for head gear. I was in Woolworths, and in the toy department there was a row of these giant yellow ducks on wheels. You pulled them along on a string and if you squeezed them, they quacked. For some reason, I just looked at one of them and realized that I had never seen a duck that big. If I cut the wheels off, it would make a hat! Then, when I wrote ”How Sweet To Be An Idiot”, I thought that would be another time to wear the hat. Since then, I’ve never been allowed to forget the duck!

 

You have a duck and Kevin Ayers had a banana and both of you played with Ollie Halsall.

Innes: Ha ha ha! I played with Kevin Ayers on a couple of gigs! And with Ollie of course. Ollie was absolutely fantastic. I wonder sometimes if he was not maybe autistic in the sense that people with autism are sometimes much more brilliant at one thing. And as a musician, he was just uncanny, he was an acrobat. 

Neil Innes p62

Now you are touring again with the Rutles. How did that come about?

Innes: Last year in August, Bill Heckle at the Beatles week in Liverpool, asked me on the phone if there was any chance in getting the Rutles back together again. Once we got it organized it seemed silly to do it for just one gig. It was like Fatso days really, we hired a van and got in it and went in and did these gigs. And it was great! Everyone’s singing along. And we thought that we should do more of it while we still can.

What was nice about the Rutles is that everybody got the joke. It was like: ”Let’s play fans!” Because we were playing: ”Let’s be a super group!” It was like children playing their games in the sand pit – and everybody wanted to play. I think it’s lovely and it’s still got that quality. People in England throw tea bags at us. At the same time, the songs do stand up in their own right and people like to sing them, and as a song writer I couldn’t be happier because the best praise you can have is for people to sing your songs!

 

I suppose you will not be appearing at the Monty Python reunion in July?

Innes: No. It is an open secret that Eric Idle and I have drifted into mutual irritation. He is in charge of the show, and he’s got choreographers and dancers, it’ll be more like a Las Vegas show as far as I can see. There is no need for an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano.

Neil Innes p63

Almost forgotten: 10 best albums of Q4, 2019

Roger Heathers - Grim

Listing the best albums of the fourth quarter of the year is always very difficult. Everyone is focused on summing up the year and competing to get their overviews and best-of lists out before everyone else, a lot of great music released in Q4 tends to get lost by the wayside. I have sinned as well, inasmuch as I published my best-of-the year list already two weeks ago.

But the fact reamins that there are were many sublime albums also this quarter that didn’t make it into that list. So in order to rectify at least a little, here is my list of favourite albums for this ugly duckling of a quarter. 

And, honestly, every album here is really and truly worthwhile!!  This may be the last quarter of the decade, but it certainly goes out with a bang!

 

William Doyle – Your Wilderness Revisited

An album that takes the electronic pop that Doyle has been exploring in East India Youth to the next level. Great melodies combined with a reflective exploration of the fabric of places, or maybe even more the fabric of experiencing places. thoughtful and hummable in equal measures – and with Brian Eno guesting! 

 

Feet – What’s Inside Is More Than Just Ham

Billed by some as the future of British pop, this album kicks off in a magnificent way with irresistible opening track ‘Good Richard’s Crash Landing’ that merges Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci with Syd Barrett. The rest of the album is pretty great too, and wonderfully wacky, although not all of it gets me into the future. Still, an incredibly promising start, can’t wait to see where their silly feet will take them next!

 

Jake Fletcher – Jake Fletcher

I just don’t get people who launch albums in the second half of December, when everyone has already written their pieces wrapping up the year. Here is a bona fide tour de force singer-songwriter album, all quirks and great melodies, that will just disappear, I am afraid. Don’t let that happen! Pick this one up!!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYl77a3KnMo

 

Ham Legion – Paradise Park

This was part of my my best of 2019 list, and i stand by every word I wrote there: Here’s an album full of power chords and metally, growly things that simultaneously dares to be light as a butterfly. The effect is stunning in a literal and visceral way. Now this list is in alphabetical order, but if I were to pick a second album of the year, this is clearly it.

 

Roger Heathers – GRIM

Roger Heathers is a very productive pop musician, both solo and as part of Pea Green Boat. Only this quarter he has released a string of Pea Green Boat singles and two solo albums. Although I think Roger might still gain from focusing a bit more on honing his releases, the fact remains that everything he puts his hand to comes out very nicely. Think intelligent 70s pop with beautiful multilayered voices and a modern sensibility. Check out his latest one as well, ‘How Sweet!’ because it really is!

 

The Leaf Library – The World Is A Bell

You might frown at this and call it repetitive or think of it as mesmerising and hypnotic and lap it up right away. For me it is a bit of both, but when I am in a reflective mood for it, this works much better than any music labeled ‘ambient’. Given the slighlty glacial pace yet busy and classy production, as well as the fact that it is all wrapped around a beating pop heart makes it difficult to not think Stereolab, although this sounds quite different.

And if you want to experience the deep end of The leaf Libary, they have also released a half-hour minimal drone piece as a name-your-price download this quarter. Not for the faint of heart.

 

Anna Meredith – Fibs

The genre hopper badge of the year should definitely be given to Anna Meredith. here she covers all bases, from film music via various kinds of popular music to jazz and classical. Yet it is all tied together into a visionary stab at trying to take music forward, to discover something new and exciting. She might not yet be breaking free from the avant garde, but she is well on her way. Wonderful!

 

Sean O’Hagan – Radum Calls

Another album that was already listed in my best of 2019 list, and if anything I like this album even more now than I did only a few weeks ago. Anyway, this is what I wrote then: While only being Sean’s second solo album proper, this builds very much on his long raft of High Lamas albums. A brilliant return – and a bold step forward for experimental pop music.

 

Vinny Peculiar – While You Still Can

Potentially the least peculiar album that Vinny has made in quite some time. Instead full of really great songs and obeservations. Highly recommended.

 

Wilco – Ode to Joy

I must admit that I have never been much of a Wilco fan, but this new album is just plain wonderful. Stripped back and simple, yet with a warmth and sense of volume that just pulls me straight in. Are all the other Wilco albums this great if I give them a better chance? 

Gentle Giant release insanely giant box

Clocking in at 29 CDs plus one Blu-ray, the ‘Unburied Treasure’ box set by Gentle Giant is truly insane. But given that this band made insanely unique music, it is only fitting. The short of it is that I would recommend this box to newcomers and long-time fans alike, but if you need more convincing before shelling out what might also be seen as insanely much money for CDs in this day and age, then read on.

Gentle-Giant-box-photo-square-1500

When the end is a new beginning

With 30 discs in total to choose from, I am probably the only reviewer to dive directly for the June 16 1980 live set recorded at the Roxy in LA.

I fumble when trying to press the disc onto the spindle. But then, finally, it is there. ’Convenience (Clean and Easy)’ from final Gentle Giant album ‘Civilian’ blast through the speakers and it takes less than a minute for my eyes to fill with tears.

But wait a minute, that final album is crap, right? Well-known prog rock journalist Sid Smith recently asked his Facebook friends the following: “I’m writing something about when our love for an artist cools or dies completely. 

What LP caused you to part company and why? How did you feel? Was there ever a joyful reunion?”

‘Civilian’ by Gentle Giant was one of the answers he got.

And despite the members of the band defending the album even today, all I hear is a mediocre stab at mainstream 1980s rock.

The reason I am putting on this particular disc is that for more than 39 years I have believed I saw the last ever performance by Gentle Giant. That concert took place at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco on June 15th, and I specifically attended the second set starting at 11 PM, because in the tour program published at the time that was indeed the very last.

Turns out I was wrong.

Turns out they added added the Roxy in Hollywood for two more shows even though they had been there the night before the Old Waldorf, due to popular demand.

Turns out that I have even have that performance on CD already, as it was previously released as ‘The Last Steps’ in 1996; it has just been mislabeled as the ‘official’ June 14th show all these years. Probably by someone like me who had seen the originally published tour schedule.

So, one more childhood illusion shattered. Anyway, I was there at what was then the penultimate night (sigh). 

The Old Waldorf was a small venue, holding only a couple of hundred, a club with tables, creating a very intimate setting. I remember the band actually announcing that it was their last performance there on that stage (despite what then happened the following night), and there was a shock of sadness like a ripple through the room.

But they certainly went with a bang. Wow, what an emotional show!

They mixed songs from the ‘Civilian’ album with a selection from their classic albums, while they showing off their incredible musicianship by swapping instruments with each other seemingly at random during the show. And organically that led up to everyone playing their otherwise also well-documented all drums number.

Much of that can be heard on this final disc, although the sound quality suffers from having been recorded at such a small venue. I haven’t been to the Roxy but understand that it was similar to the Old Waldorf – it certainly sounds like a club recording and doesn’t breathe. As a result, the excitement I felt at seeing them unfortunately doesn’t translate onto disc.

One of those “you had to be there” moments.

From one extreme to the other

From that extreme end, the next disc to get a spin is from the very beginning, because, excitingly, we have full Steven Wilson stereo and surround remixes of the magnificent first Gentle Giant album from 1970. 

In 2017, Alucard released the ‘Three Piece Suite’ containing new mixes of a few tracks from each of the first three albums. To my knowledge, they did so because the other master tapes were lost. So, had they now found the missing masters? 

On re-reading the ‘Three Piece Suite’ liners, I realise there is no mention of lost masters; there is in fact no real explanation for combining the three first albums into one at all. Hmmm…

In fact, despite all the books, and posters and stuff that you get with ‘Unburied Treasure’ there is no explanation here either. There are in fact no mentions about the remixes at all. Very irritating.

In any case, I put on the surround mix first. And boy, does that translate to disc, just wow! 

‘Gentle Giant’ is in places rather sparse in its instrumentation and quite gentle indeed, leading one to think that doing a surround mix would be overkill. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, this mix shines light on all the nuances and magically enhances the multi-vocal parts. In fact, I think it is one of the most impressive surround mixes of 70s records I have heard – and I have heard many. 

Even in the prog rock genre, Gentle Giant’s music is effortlessly at the top when it comes to complexity, yet they are simultaneously the most melodically oriented of them all. In that sense, Gentle Giant are to prog rock what 10cc are to pop music. As a result, their music is a natural fit for surround. 

But having said that, I was not prepared for the depth such a mix would reveal in their debut album. Totally fantastic! If you are a hard core Gentle Giant fan, I would say that this mix alone is worth the (very high) price of this box alone.

The perfect middle ground

After the end and the beginning, I go smack bang to the middle since the 1975 album Free Hand is my favourite after all. For this reason, it is a great pleasure to find a classic concert performed in the wake of the release of that album here, namely in Basel on November 24th. Although there Is a professionally recorded (and filmed) performance from Germany on August 10th previously released as the ‘Giant on the Box’ DVD, this sadly seems to be the only other recording from that phase. And, it is brilliant, with engaging performances, the trademark taped breaking glass intro to ‘The Runaway’ that has the audience clapping hands before the strange time signatures quickly overwhelm them, a spinning coin introducing ‘Excerpts from Octopus’ and all in quite good sound quality. A must hear! 

Digging in

There are many other live discs here, from every phase of the band’s career. I can’t say that I have fully listened to them all yet, but at an attempted quick skip through listen I got caught up in the music on too many occasions making it a very long listening session indeed. 

Despite heavy touring as can be studied in detail in the included LP sized 97 page ‘Tour History’, Gentle Giant only released one live album, ‘Playing The Fool’. Given their incredibly high musicianship, it is not surprisingly the highest rated Gentle Giant album on progarchives.com, even though the band were beyond their peak creatively speaking. But here, for the first time, we are treated to the complete set of recordings that were used as the basis to compile that album. Although some of it has been released in bits and pieces here and there, it is great to have it all, not least because it represent the most well recorded live material they ever did – and they are indeed in blazing form throughout.

Other notable inclusions on the box are a great BBC session from 1972, lost from the BBC archives but taped off the air by a fan, and the Pinewood Studios rehearsal tapes prior to setting out on a tour of America in 1977 in full remastered (if not exactly glorious) quality. The set contains two songs from ‘The Missing Piece’ album that were never recorded live in any other way – and at least ‘As Old As You’re Young’ is every bit as good as classic era Gentle Giant.

It is easy to gush on about Gentle Giant, but who is this box for?

I really would want to recommend it to someone who is new to the band, or in fact to someone who has now experience of 1970s prog rock at all. Gentle Giant suffer from none of the pomp or pretentiousness that prog is often, and partly correctly, associated with. Instead they showcase musical invention and team spirit at its best. But would such a person shell out well above £250 for a box like this? I wonder… 

Blu-ray box next please!

So that probably leaves us to the committed fans instead. But they probably already have multiple copies of all the official albums. I had much rather seen a complete Blu-ray release of the studio albums instead, to be honest. Since ‘Acquiring the Taste’ and ‘Three Friends’ were not remixed for this release, will we they ever get a release? Although this box it is certainly great not only in its physical shape and form, I hope it won’t be the last.

So far, only ‘Octopus’ and ‘The Power and the Glory’ are available in proper, uncompressed surround editions, despite the fact that no other band I can think of, including King Crimson, gains as much from surround mixes. 

Even though surround mixes of both ‘Free Hand’ and ‘Interview’ exist, they have only been released as compressed DTS versions on that awful DVD-Video disc format. Even just thinking about a surround mix of the insanely intense experimental masterpiece that is ‘In A Glass House’ makes my mouth totally dry. How on earth hasn’t that even happened yet!?! Just asking! After all, that first post Phil Shulman album is the point were the band really should have dropped the ‘gentle’ part of their name, as what followed were quartet of albums deceptively still full of gentle sounds but at heart utterly without compromise.

In comparison, ‘The Missing Piece’ obviously would pale, but it is still a great album, and surely the master tapes at least for that album are still around?

Unlike other progressive acts from the 1970s, Gentle Giant have never reformed. As an effect, their singular legacy remains fully untarnished. And these guys truly were giants although they lost their way with the two last albums. The taller they are, the harder they fall.

That is why this box is essential. Yet we still want more!! Blu-ray box next please!

Roy Wood cuts the mustard

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In an extremely crowded field of English eccentric pop stars, Roy Wood still stands out with ease. He is very consistently strange, in a Vivian Stanshall kind of way. 

Since his time with the Move, he has been as comfortable with writing charting pop hits as with doing over-produced doo wop pastiches. And in the process he has probably managed to alienate both the hit listeners and the Americana aficionados.

Given his incredible talent and musical skill that is no mean feat. It is of course also a terrible shame.

Because, just like his one time band mate Jeff Lynne, he really has total mastery of the beatlesque pop song formula. You get the impression that he can bang out a tune that appeals equally to your feet and to your brain almost without any effort at all. Simultaneously, listening to his albums also becomes an exercise in patience since he has a tendency to fill the spaces between those irresistibly stellar pop songs with homages to 1940s swing era or rock’n’roll medleys.

That is certainly also true for his second solo album, ‘Mustard’, from 1975, which is now it is being reissued by Esoteric in remastered form. Unfortunately, the bonus tracks are the same ones as on the Edsel edition from the late 1990s and the Japanese reissue from 2006 on Air Mail Archive: Given that Roy not only recorded this completely with only the slightest of vocal help (from girlfriend Annie Haslam among others), but also had to movie studios in the middle of everything, resulting in a quite protracted recording period, I am sure that there really is a ton of unused material tucked away on a tape reel in someone’s attic somewhere. 

The first bonus track here, ‘Oh What A Shame’ was the last Roy Wood song to bother the charts. Although released in anticipation of ’Mustard’, it is not included on the album – an album that marked the fading away of Roy Wood from the public eye, even though he remained active in some form for more than another decade with his last solo album ‘Starting Up’ being released in 1987.

And listening to ‘Mustard’ now, it is easy to understand why it didn’t sell well. It is really all over the place. 

A needle violently hits the run-in groove of a 78 rpm disc, as the album kicks off with Roy expertly mimicking a 1940s swing tune on ‘Mustard’. It is as skilful as it is flabbergasting. But then on second track, ‘Any Old Time Will Do’ we get a typical Roy Wood pop number, slightly nostalgic and eminently hummable. And on ‘The Rain Came DownOn Everything’ continues with pop drama of the highest order, and comparisons with ELO are not difficult to make.

But then we are back to pastiche land again with the boogie of ‘You Sure Got It Now’, followed by a perfect beach Boys homage in ‘Why Does Such A Pretty Girl Sing’. You just have to roll with it. Granted, even that can be a challenge, as ‘The Song’ comes next, with a plaintive, melodramatic vocal couple of minutes followed by four minutes of romantic, classically inspired instrumental stuff than sounds like it was pulled out of some 50s movie.

Although the 50s touch still very much remains, the next song, ‘Look Through The Eyes Of A Fool’, again pulls us firmly back onto irresistible Roy Wood pop ground. Alas, that bliss is only short lived, as Roy ends the album with an extended potpourri that doubles as a musical workout for good and for bad.

It is easy to be confounded by this record, and it really makes you wonder why at many points.  But simultaneously, it is difficult not to get smitten by Roy’s genuine love for the various genres he visits, and, in the end, to appreciate all his eccentricity.