Randomising the record collection #11: Mychael Danna/Various Artists – Monsoon Wedding (soundtrack)

#3598 – Mychael Danna /Various Artists – Monsoon Wedding (soundtrack)
(CD, 2001) (Discogs tracklisting)

11 monsoon weddin

According to my spreadsheet, and why should it lie, there are 37 original soundtrack recordings in my collection (some home-taped, admittedly). I don’t make a habit of buying them, but they wander in from time to time, when the music in a movie has made a particularly strong impression.

And so it was with Monsoon Wedding, a film whose soundtrack is, so far as I can recall, notably integral to the action. I had hopes of watching it again last night – but alas, it wasn’t to be found on any of our telly’s three streaming services (so I’ve ordered the DVD instead, for a fiver). Its story centres around the preparations for a Punjabi Hindu wedding in Delhi, and the various complications that threaten it, climaxing with the joyous occasion itself.

The soundtrack was compiled by director Mira Nair (previously Oscar-nominated for Salaam Bombay) and Mychael Danna, a Canadian composer married to an Indian (and subsequently the winner of a Best Original Score Oscar for his soundtrack to Life of Pi). Danna composed nine instrumental pieces, which are interspersed with seven selections from other artists. Three remixes complete the 19-track package.

In her liner notes, Nair describes the soundtrack as “with the help of Music Express, this is my own intensely personal mosaic of music that mixes beloved love songs from Hindi films, classic Urdu ghazals my husband Mahmood sang to me in the heady days of our courtship, the bawdy celebration songs that routinely erupt at my family’s dining table.” And it’s that latter component which has stuck most clearly in my memory. “Mehndi/Madhorama Pencha”, sung by a large group of laughing women during the wedding’s mehndi ceremony, is a rambunctious call-and-response that includes, unless my ears deceive me, references to malt whiskey, disco dancing and Calvin Klein.

Earlier on, the movie’s theme tune, “Aaj Mera Jee Kardaa (Today My Heart Desires)”, is sung in Punjabi by a voice that might sound familiar: Sukhwinder Singh, who supplied lead vocals for Slumdog Millionaire‘s international smash hit, “Jai Ho”. Other familiar names pop up elsewhere: there’s a qawwali from the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and a dance track from the British-Indian producer Bally Sagoo, which adds a pinch of Goa trance to a burbling Eurodance rhythm. On “Fabric/Aaja Savariya”, Delhi’s MIDIval Punditz fuse a ghazal with a drum-and-bass breakbeat, while the three remixes at the end of the disc nudge into Talvin Singh/Nitin Sawhney territory (somewhat inessentially; the soundtrack proper ends with Sagoo’s piece).

Two songs are lifted from pre-existing Bollywood soundtracks. From 1973’s Loafer, there’s the romantic, string-laden old-school playback of Mohammed Rafi’s “Aaj Mausam Bada Beimann Hai (Today The Weather Plays Tricks On Me)”, and from 1999’s comedy Biwi No. 1, there’s the irresistibly lively and catchy “Chunari Chunari”, which fills the dancefloor at the wedding’s evening party.

This might all sound like a hodge-podge grab bag of conflicting styles, but it’s the diversity which makes this collection work. All I need to do now is re-match the tracks on the CD with the scenes on the DVD, and my experience will be complete. It was good to dig this out again. Props to the randomiser for forcing my hand.

Randomising the record collection #10: Actress – R.I.P.

#1757 – Actress – R.I.P.
(CD, 2012) (Discogs tracklisting)

10 actress

I’ve groaned at some of these selections: oh, must I listen to this and dredge up something to say? Not so with this one, which gave me a great deal of pleasure four years ago, and so excited me with the prospect of getting reacquainted.

Although abstract and instrumental, R.I.P. was never background music. I always gave it, if not full attention, as close to full attention as my flittering brain would allow. There were places where it worked best. In the car, I felt enveloped by its strange and unique sonic textures; there’s a distinct memory of hearing “Holy Water”, and feeling as if the interior was slowly being filled, water trickling and oozing in from right and left. In the cottage, where the same player was wired to three sets of speakers in three adjoining rooms, I preferred the smaller middle room, facing the garden. Here, the details came into clearer focus. Again, there was that remarkable three-dimensional effect, casting each track as a sculpture that I could examine from all angles.

I’ve been playing these records and CDs in the office below street level, where the turntable and laptop live. This time I moved upstairs, to use the same sound system that we brought from the cottage. The room, which looks out over the railway station, is rarely used during the day. I pre-warmed it and settled in, on the comfiest seating in the house. It’s the best room to listen closely to CDs. I should use it more.

Actress is the working name of Darren Cunningham, a British electronic artist who initially found favour with a more dance-angled sound. With this, his third of four albums to date, he moved away from beatmaking; only three of its fifteen tracks have any kind of pronounced backbeat, and you wouldn’t think to dance to any of them. Consequently, he fell out of favour with some of his previous admirers, who were left cold by the abstraction, and by the absence of much in the way of forward movement within each track. Typically, patterns are set in motion and left to hang there, with only subtle variations, or next to none.

I understand the frustration, but I don’t share it. By paring down the shifts, Cunningham has given the listener space to dig right into the inner workings of his constructions. As I say, it’s like looking at sculptures in a gallery. You have to cross that line between first, fleeting impressions and the deeper appreciation which only emerges when you give the pieces time, thought and concentrated focus. But many still won’t click, and that’s also fine.

The album’s narrative arc is reportedly inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the track titles bear this out: Jardin, Serpent, Tree Of Knowledge. You don’t have to pay attention to this, but if you do – and today, I did so for the first time – it can unlock an extra dimension. Milton’s framing of the Adam and Eve story extends further than the basic Old Testament text, casting back to Satan’s banishment from Heaven and reaching forward to an angelic revelation to a fallen Adam, showing him what lay ahead: the great flood, a hint of the Second Coming.

This helps to explain why the album starts in such a dank, murky fashion – casual dippers-in might never make it past the first few tracks – before introducing different moods and textures. Jardin marks a big shift, as we exit the warring cosmos and find ourselves in an earthly paradise. Or is it? The initially charming pastoral mood is extended so far – it’s the longest track on the album – that it starts to cloy and pall, suggesting that in the absence of wisdom, naivety is no place to be forever stuck.

There is no big, dramatic “and lo, the Lord did banish the wretched pair from Eden” moment here. We skip past its expected place, to Adam’s vision of Noah’s raven being sent from the ark, to see whether the floods were subsiding. It’s a vignette of hope. And by the penultimate track, N.E.W. – a beatific swirl, like a fugue of melted church organs – there’s a sense that the so-called Fall of Man has instead led us to a place of greater enlightenment. Or, if you want to skip all the chewy stuff, there’s at least a realisation that you have travelled from darkness into light.

That’s a hell of a lot of potential meaning to extract from nearly an hour’s worth of glitchy, uneasy and peculiar instrumental electronica, which many would dismiss out of hand as boring, weird, discomforting or difficult. As for me, I found returning to this album absorbing, thought-provoking and uplifting. I got stuff out of it that I’d never got out of it before. It’s days like these that make writing this series feel justified.

Randomising the record collection #9: E.U. – Da Butt

#472 – E.U. – Da Butt
(7-inch single, 1988) (Discogs tracklisting)

09 eu da butt

– “I’m here with film director Spike Lee. Spike, why did you decide to make your film, School Daze?”
– “I’m glad you asked that question. I created School Daze so I could create a dance.”
– “And do tell, what dance is that?”
– “What dance is it? The name of the dance is called The Butt. The Butt. Playback!”

In the UK, Washington D.C. go-go music – a percussion-heavy, jam-based derivative of funk – enjoyed a window of fashionability that lasted almost exactly two years. It broke through in early 1985 with Little Benny & The Masters’ “Who Comes To Boogie”, ushering in a spate of reissues from bands such as Trouble Funk, who became the scene’s de facto leaders. But by early 1987, the genre’s limited supply of records had all been compiled and played to death, and with nothing much hitting the new release racks, interest waned as sharply as it had begun.

None of this passing UK interest had been matched in the States, where go-go remained confined to its home neighbourhoods in D.C. But the genre had a spark of life left in it yet.

In 1988, E.U. (Experience Unlimited), whose “E.U. Freeze” had been one of the bigger go-go tracks in the UK, were given a track co-written by Marcus Miller (best known for his work with Luther Vandross) and Mark Stevens, the brother of Chaka Khan. Miller also produced the track, aided by Robert Clivilles and David Cole, later of C&C Music factory. Thanks to its placement on Spike Lee’s School Daze soundtrack, “Da Butt” went Top 40 on the Billboard chart, and reached Number One on the US R&B chart, giving go-go its biggest hit by far (albeit posthumously, in jaded UK fashionista terms).

Despite the presence of so many collaborators from the mainstream R&B industry, who hadn’t previously been linked to the scene, “Da Butt” sounds more or less authentic. The key elements are present and correct – that percussion sound, call-and-response chants, a live feel – and the track hasn’t been over-produced (as long as you steer clear of its gimmicky “B Boy Dub” on the flip side). It’s no classic, but it’s no disgrace either.

Randomising the record collection #8: Róisín Murphy – Ruby Blue

#2733 – Róisín Murphy – Ruby Blue
(CD, 2005) (Discogs tracklisting)

08 roisin murphy

Róisín Murphy’s third album, Hairless Toys – her first in eight years – was one of my absolute favourites of 2015. Fluid, elegant and beguiling (and fully deserving of its Mercury Prize nomination, which makes a nice change), it sported the most consistently strong songwriting of her post-Moloko solo career.

I hadn’t expected to fall for it so hard. In my mind, Murphy was one of those doughty troupers of leftfield pop: always worthy of respect, but never quite in the top drawer either. I had forgotten that I owned her first two albums, and so was surprised, when trawling through my old blog archives (which I’m slowly transferring to this site, in spare moments), to find that Ruby Blue, her debut solo release, had reached the dizzy heights of Number 14 in my Albums of 2005 countdown.

My pulse wasn’t exactly quickened when scanning the liner notes, and finding that this was a collaboration with Matthew Herbert; he and Murphy co-wrote and co-produced all twelve tracks. I used to find Herbert’s approach an interesting one – he set himself rigorous guidelines for music-making, including a ban on drum machines, presets and samples of other artists’ work – but for me, the results rarely seemed to live up to the ideals.

Although it went Top Ten in Belgium, Ruby Blue sold poorly elsewhere, compared to the sustained commercial success that Murphy had enjoyed with Moloko. It’s easy to understand why. Making no concessions to the expectations of daytime radio playlist committees, it marks a determined shift away from pop, and the adoption of a more overtly experimental approach, in terms of songwriting, arrangement and production.

Opening with one of its most obtuse, arid and melodically tricky tracks, “Leaving The City”, the album lays down its gauntlet straight away. But by the third track, “Night Of The Dancing Flame”, it starts to ease up, adding Twenties Flapper Jazz flavours that lighten the mood. This is a recurring stylistic theme, conveyed by a three-piece brass section that features on almost every song.

“Through Time” is gently yearning, an extended swoon whose melodic sweetness is undercut by blasts of static noise in the coda. “Sow Into You” was a doomed choice of single; perhaps it should have been “Dear Diary” instead, with its funky horns and more groove-based feel. Meanwhile, in a fleeting throwback to Moloko days, “If We’re In Love”, the other single, boasts Ruby Blue‘s sole conventional pop refrain. It’s the only passage on the album which I could sing back to you now.

The songwriting throughout is recognisably from the same hand that penned Hairless Toys, which leads me to assume that Murphy supplied the bare-bone compositions, while Herbert worked more on the arrangements. Lyrically, it feels as if she’s describing a state of uncertain flux, as a relationship draws to an end; the sentiments are open-ended and self-questioning. Production-wise, there’s a fidgety quality, and a novel approach to sonic design: typically for Herbert, a range of everyday objects are sampled, lending the electronics a more organic, less artificial tone.

The penultimate track, reduced to a 52-second instrumental “prelude” on the CD, has been front-sliced from a longer composition, whose lyrics are printed in full in the booklet – but you’d have had to wait for the release of “Sow Into You” as a single, four months later, to hear the full song. Was this teaser marketing, or did Murphy decide the song wasn’t up to scratch? Whatever the reason, it sets a false trail for the final track, “The Closing Of The Doors”, which strips away all the clutter, leaving a steady Bacharach piano and an intermittent, elegiac flugel horn to carry Murphy’s understated balladeering.

You can’t really do this record full justice, on the basis of two plays after a ten year gap. There’s just too much to digest. And so, for the first time since this series began, I won’t be putting this one straight back on the shelf. I had underestimated it, and now I want to take the time to get properly re-acquainted.

Randomising the record collection #7: 808 State – Bombadin

#4804 – 808 State – Bombadin
(CD single, 1994) (Discogs tracklisting)

07 808 state

Millennials might find this hard to grasp, but in pre-internet days, the easiest way of listening to a lot of new music was simply to buy it. I’m therefore guessing that a goodly chunk of this single’s first week sales came from punters finding it on the new release racks at their local chain store – probably at a promotional discount price – and thinking: hmm, wonder what the new 808 State sounds like. That would have been enough to push it into the charts at 67, from where it dropped to 85 before disappearing into the void (and the bargain bins thereafter).

Neither “Bombadin” nor “Marathon” sound remotely like anything I remember 808 State recording before, or since. There’s nothing to link them to the outfit’s best remembered hits: “Pacific”, “Cubik”, “In Yer Face”. You could see this either a sign of strength (flexibility, willingness to try out new ideas), or weakness (lack of character, susceptibility to prevailing trends).

The music does sounds like 1994, though. The radio-length Barta Edit immediately puts me in mind of The Grid’s “Swamp Thing” and “Texas Cowboys” from the same year: a dinky piece of fluff, surprisingly lightweight by 808 State’s standards, with a daft little chant that sticks in the memory after the first listen. Its ideas are put to more satisfying use on the Original Quica mix, whose rhythms feel more Latino, possibly inspired by Jingo’s “Candido” from 1979.

“Marathon” mines similar territory, but with more relentless intensity; there’s a wobbly acidic didgeridoo, which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Leftfield or Underworld track, coupled with muffled background shrieks. It’s all a bit too thickly piled on, though, at the expense of light, shade and progression. This gets more problematic on the Original 2/4 Pub Mix, which doubles up the drumbeats, as its title suggests. Frankly, it was a slog to get through on a Monday afternoon. I shouldn’t have started clock-watching the CD display; it only prolonged the discomfort.

Even on a Monday afternoon, it doesn’t usually take much for dance music to make me wiggle, twitch and grin – but this single left me motionless and poker-faced. Back into the racks it goes, then.

Randomising the record collection #6: Wayne G ft Stewart Who? – Twisted

#6350 – Wayne G ft Stewart Who? – Twisted
(12-inch single, 1997) (Discogs tracklisting)

06 wayne g

Excuse me. Do you fuck as well as you dance? Are you as hot in the bedroom as you are on the dance floor? Oh really? See ya. Later.

As I recall, Wayne G was the Saturday night main room DJ at Heaven, while Stewart Who? wrote acerbically about the London gay scene for QX Magazine. Thus they were in prime positions to observe, document and satirise the pumped-up, drugged-up, sexed-up Bacchanalia which surrounded them every weekend, as gay London club culture approached some sort of apex of freewheeling, devil-may-care mayhem and excess, before the laws of diminishing returns started kicking in towards the back end of the decade.

Unlike any other records that it would have been mixed into at the time, almost all of which were lyric-free, “Twisted” has a story to tell. The title of the main mix places the action at a specific time and place – 6am at Warriors, the none-more-hardcore Sunday night/Monday morning successor to the legendary FF sessions at Turnmills in Clerkenwell – but in reality, it could have taken place at any one of more than a dozen regular club nights.

Above Wayne’s generically banging hard trance backing track, Stewart intones, with lethal accuracy, the deadpan internal monologue of a wasted, greedy, narcissistic, superior, misanthropic and ultimately lost soul, shirtlessly spinning beneath the lasers at peak time, his only priorities in life pared down to sex, drugs and dancing.

The effect is both comic and unsettling. Comic, because those of us on the scene at that time – and I was absolutely one of them – could recognise this character instantly. Unsettling, because his thought processes veered rather too closely to our own, at our worst moments. If the most effective satire holds up a mirror, then this wasn’t a mirror that anyone would want to stare into for too long.

Or, as the back sleeve chirpily put it, in big bold type: “Once In A While, A Track Comes Along That Everyone Can Relate To… This Is It!”

Completing the original 12-inch package, there’s an accapella, an instrumental and a wholly reworked remix of considerably lesser impact.

Randomising the record collection #5: Whycliffe – Rough Side

#6847 – Whycliffe – Rough Side
(LP, 1991) (Discogs tracklisting)

05 whycliffe

It’s impossible to listen to Whycliffe’s first of two albums, both recorded for MCA in the early Nineties, without being aware of the shadow cast by the Nottingham singer-songwriter’s subsequent fall from grace. For the past fifteen years or so, you’ll have found him wandering the streets of his home town, a damaged and vulnerable figure, singing for coins.

“After Journeys of the Mind [his second album, 1994], I went into my own mind and deep into myself. I got ill. It’s hard to remember much of what happened, but it was a downward spiral that I couldn’t get out of”, he told LeftLion magazine in 2005. “There was so much happening to me at such a young age that I couldn’t quite cope with it all.”

It could have worked out very differently. There were TV appearances (Live And Kicking, The Word), big shows (Hammersmith Odeon, support slots with James Brown at Wembley Arena and Birmingham NEC), not to mention a romance with Dannii Minogue, which Whycliffe talks about poignantly in that 2005 interview. And yet the hits never came: three minor chart entries from seven singles, the highest peaking at #56.

Rough Side is handsomely packaged, with photos by Peter Ashworth and Juergen Teller. Money has clearly been spent. Hopes are riding high. Whycliffe’s sleeve notes are full of optimism: “Hold tight, we’re going all the way!” / “To the rest of you spunky kids, don’t let anyone stop you from doing what you want to do.”

Although the requisite pop sheen of the day has been added to the production, it doesn’t smother the songs, or dampen the performances; indeed, the record has aged a good deal better than Wednesday’s D-Influence album. Only two tracks are co-writes. There’s a pleasing variety of subject matter and mood. Stylistically, it follows in a straight line from Terence Trent D’Arby, Sidney Youngblood and Seal: commercial pop-soul, with a post-Soul II Soul percussive funkiness that doesn’t irritate by over-familiarity. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable listen, if short on stand-out cuts – although perhaps the closing song, “Love Speak Up”, could have been a hit if the wind had been blowing in the right direction.

Around the time of the album’s release, I saw Whycliffe and his band playing at the old Trent Poly. Earthier, funkier and sexier than on record, they put on an impressive show. He had charisma and vocal power. I thought we were in with a chance of that rarest of events in those dark, pre-Bugg days: a Nottingham breakthrough act, that would put the city on the map. But things like that just didn’t happen back then. We didn’t have the sort of supportive, nurturing scene that could have birthed and championed a homegrown talent.

Nottingham’s a kinder place for artists these days, but Whycliffe haunts it still: a punchline to an in-joke, an awful warning, a talent in irreversible retreat. This was a good album, which deserves to be remembered on its own merits – but perhaps that’s now too much to ask.

Randomising the record collection #4: Uncut Hard Drive: Uncut’s Pick Of The Hottest New Music

#4056 – Various Artists – Uncut Hard Drive: Uncut’s Pick Of The Hottest New Music
(CD, 2003) (Discogs tracklisting)

04 uncut hard drive

And on the fourth day, we come to the first of the magazine covermounts – of which there are hundreds, I’m warning you now. Why have I hung onto these? When am I ever going to play them out of choice, rather than self-imposed, random-number-generated necessity? Why didn’t I just chuck them all away?

You can put it down to some residual taboo, which still regards all items of physical music as sacred objects – yea, even unto the poxy magazine covermounts. And yet, I’ve done my share of chucking: an Observer chill-out CD was the first to go, after a single play revealed it as unlistenable, barrel-scraping tosh, and I also got rid of every covermount given away by The Word magazine (terrific publication, piggin’ AWFUL covermounts). But there, I think, the carnage ceased. And so I am left with practically a full set of Uncut compilations from 2000 to 2003, after which they dwindle to almost nothing.

(At least I got rid of the jewel cases. They’ve been slimmed down into plastic wallets, and squeezed into a separate space from the “proper” stuff. In the megalopolis of my music collection, the covermounts are the shanty town on the southern border.)

In 2000, Uncut’s CDs were bloody great, each one containing more than enough gems to balance out the duds. I first discovered Ryan Adams this way; Jackie Leven, too. But by 2003 – the year I stopped reading the magazine regularly – our paths had diverged. I had tired of their roster of adult-oriented singer-songwriters and stunning-returns-to-form-that-manifestly-weren’t, and my fling with New Americana, which Uncut had championed in the UK, was all but over.

The tracklisting for Hard Drive fills me not so much with dread, more with weary indifference. I’m going take this one slowly, spreading it over the day. Deep breath – we’re going in.

1. Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3 – Amphetamine
Massively enjoyable high-octane, full-throttle, southern-boogie-goes-to-CBGB-in-1975 ramalama epic. As Mrs. Thatcher once said of the Thrashing Doves on Saturday morning kids’ TV: I liked the electric guitars. 8/10

2. Lucinda Williams – Ventura
I’ve always been allergic to her voice, and this is precisely the sort of bleak mope that I was expecting to dominate the CD. She starts by making soup, and she ends by throwing up into the toilet – which I suppose is a narrative trajectory of sorts. A couple of pleasantly twangy guitar breaks provide the only respite. 4/10

3. Ian McCulloch – High Wires
Gormless swagger, pitched at the Gallagher/Ashcroft constituency. 1/10

4. My Morning Jacket – Death Is The Easy Way
Our second bleak mope: funereally paced and wanly intoned, in that particular kind of post-Neil Young whine which always gets my goat. Good Lord, man, at least Lucinda Williams had the gumption to heat up some soup. 2/10

5. Evan Dando – Hard Drive
Lilting, country/campfire-styled compendium of the singer’s immediate present-day reality (in which almost every line starts with “this is” or “these are”), whose slightness is redeemed by the residual attractiveness of Dando’s vocal tone. 5/10

6. Johnny Marr & The Healers – Need It
As with the McCulloch track, you’re reminded of the long shadow cast by late Britpop’s reclaiming of the classic rock aesthetic. A spirited yet ultimately static “train-kept-a-rollin'” rattle, weakly sung, enlivened by an all-too-brief guitar break that cuts through the fog. 4/10

7. Songdog – Days Of Armageddon
Anguished dirge, lifted by flashes of dark, surreal wit, but lacking any sense of progression. I’d have added a slow-building instrumental freak-out coda, but I’m corny like that. 3/10

8. Richard Thompson – I’ll Tag Along
I much prefer solo acoustic Thompson to full-band Thompson, of which this is a workmanlike example. Best guitar work since the opening track, as you’d expect. 6/10

9. Ed Harcourt – The Birds Will Sing For Us
Sounding like it was mastered from a 128k MP3, we are back in the anguished-troubadour-bleats-about-death zone, in which this CD seems determined to wallow. Save us, Sleepy Jackson! 3/10

10. The Sleepy Jackson – Miniskirt
Imagine a country-rock Lemonheads, and you’re most of the way there. Ten songs in, and I find myself craving the simple inauthenticity of the synthesiser. 4/10

11. Peter Bruntnell – Downtown
I lack the synonyms to describe this in fresh language. All of its ideas have been used in earlier tracks – the soft twang, the doleful strum, the bleating mope – and I’m beginning to feel suffocated by the cumulative defeatism on display. 1/10

12. Dan Bern & The IJBC – Crow
Stylistically, it’s 1978 punk-pop sung by 1977 Elvis Costello: clenched, bitter, resentful. Lyrically, it’s a defiant kiss-off to a shit boss. There have been days in my professional past where this song could have played an active therapeutic role. 7/10

13. The Go-Betweens – Mrs Morgan
I have no idea what they were trying to do here. As far as I can tell, the titular protagonist has been a bit of a blabbermouth – but then there’s other stuff, about rain and sand, which doesn’t work as a metaphor for anything. 2/10

14. Calexico – Not Even Stevie Nicks
Man drives car off cliff, despite best efforts of scarf-twirling AOR icon. Blogger showing early signs of Dour Americana Stockholm Syndrome. 3/10

15. The ‘Burn – Enlightening
Verve/Shack-aping Johnny Come Latelies (from Blackburn) rock up five years too late. They once opened for Oasis, you know. Yeah, that figures. 1/10

16. Black Box Recorder – Andrew Ridgley
But hark, is that the sweet strain of the synthesiser, beckoning us out of the slough of despond and into the sunlit uplands of arch post-modernist Concept Pop, where flaxen-haired Saint Etiennes frolic with wryly poker-faced Boys from the Shop of Pets? The light, it fair blinds me! Pinch my cheeks and call me Kimmy! 7/10

17. Tom McRae – Ghost Of A Shark
“Tell me now, is there difference between a shark and the ghost of a shark? Cause all I have are secrets, and memories of the dark. Oh, rip away the skin, burn my heart.” Yeah, it couldn’t last. This time around, I’m pairing “doleful” with “mope”. Doleful mope! Nearly there! 1/10

18. Buzzcocks – Useless Situation
From doleful mope to nihilistic thrash: “Life’s full of disappointments, wonder where the good times went. Craving for recognition rather than accomplishment. Nobody cares what your name is, and it’s gonna stay that way. Everything is off the record; face it, there’s nothing to say. Life’s only temporary, and then you fuckin’ die.” 4/10, docked a point for burying the vocals in the mix. A Buzzcock should ever be clean, and never be murky.

And so this most joyless of compilations sputters to a close, leaving me wondering if I should place it back in the shanty town, between Uncut’s White Riot Vol 2: A Tribute to The Clash and Uncut’s Sensation Nation (Richard Ashcroft, Interpol, Spoon, Ash, The Black Crowes, The Boggs), or toss it in the bin (hey, catalogue.xls will renumber itself, no sweat on the librarian front).

No, back to the shanty town it goes, saved from destruction by Steve Wynn, Richard Thompson, Dan Bern and Black Box Recorder.

If tomorrow’s randomiser plucks a Mixmag hard house covermount from the southern reaches of my megalopolis, I might just pull a sickie.

Randomising the record collection #3: D-Influence – Prayer 4 Unity

#2163 – D-Influence – Prayer 4 Unity
(CD, 1995) (Discogs tracklisting)

03 d-influence

It’s my 54th birthday, which means that age-wise, I am now equidistant from the millennium and my seventieth birthday. Why must I do these appalling sums in my head?

This morning, K gave me my first of three presents: a subscription to Wax & Stamp, who will be mailing me a surprise vinyl album and 12-inch single every month for the next year, chosen by the two-man team and a guest curator. Looking at their previous shipments, I find that their choices are pleasingly cross-genre, and largely unknown to me; there are only three or four names that I even recognise. This morning’s batch comprised a 10-inch EP from  Tuff Love – Glaswegian C86/dreampop janglers – and Mo Kolours, a UK hip hop/soul/jazz cut-up merchant whose approach equates to Flying Lotus, Knxwledge, and the whole Los Angeles new school. Before hitting the randomise button, I played and enjoyed both.

All of this excitement left me in quite the wrong headspace for D-Influence’s mid-Nineties acid jazz smoothness. I bought a lot of acid jazz back then, and am rarely minded to return to it. To my 2015 ears, it sounds politely constrained by its boundaries, seemingly striving to perfect a specific type of sound at the expense of individuality and risk.

And so, while the 56-minute album tootled blandly along, I kept myself amused by playing Killer Sudoku on the iPad, almost completing the Guardian quick crossword, and keeping abreast of birthday greetings on social media. It was background music then, and it’s background music now. There was little to latch onto; everything slid by in a tasteful wash. It sounded exactly like the Brand New Heavies. It reminded me of untucked, neatly pressed, mono-colour Ralph Lauren shirts. The first four tracks sounded familiar, the rest not at all. That was probably as long as my attention span lasted in 1995, too.

When track 10 turned out to be a sixteen-second interlude, sourced from a Brazilian radio show, I heaved a sigh of relief: just two more to go. It led into the only track that I could imagine playing again: “Afrojam”, an instrumental workout of significantly heightened liveliness and spirit, augmented by harmonica and Brazilian percussion. Gilles Peterson probably liked it.

D-Influence once backed Bjork on Later, in a reworking of “Aeroplane” from her debut album. It remains their most interesting moment. Let’s remember them that way.

Randomising the record collection #2: R. Kelly ‎– Down Low (Nobody Has To Know)

#5185 – R. Kelly ‎– Down Low (Nobody Has To Know)
(CD single, 1996) (Discogs tracklisting)

02-r kelly

And on Day Two, my randomiser gives me a second R&B song about infidelity. This time around, a woman is doing the cheating, and R. Kelly is her lover, agonising over the situation and hoping that the secret love becomes permanent. For the chorus (“keep it on the down low, nobody has to know”), Ernie Isley steps in, adding creamy vocal chops to the stately, classic-soul arrangement. On the 12″ mix – the second of five tracks on this 38 minute CD single – a long, piano-led instrumental coda fleshes the track out satisfyingly, unlike the radio mix’s all too sudden fade.

But wait – there’s more to this tale than meets the eye. On the Blame It On The Mo’ mix, Kelly presents a whole new version of the song, with a beatier feel and wholly different lyrics. “If Mr. Biggs comes in and catches, oh my goodness, he’ll be freaked when lookin’ at your pretty titties in the air”, Kelly wails, reverting to wearingly familiar type. So, who’s this Mr. Biggs when he’s at home?

On the fifth and final track (yep, I’ve skipped the instrumental again), all is revealed, over the course of over 16 minutes. This time around, the Blame It On The Mo’ version is prefaced by a full-scale mini-drama, pre-dating Kelly’s notorious “Trapped In The Closet” series by nine years. Kelly starts the action in a noisy jazz bar, as he is recruited by gangland boss Mr. Biggs (voiced by Ernie Isley) and given the job of looking after Biggs’ wife Jessica. She and Kelly drive out on a shopping trip. In-car rumpy-pumpy ensues. There is moaning, there is groaning. “Turn the radio up”, she commands – and mercifully, the strains of the Blame It On The Mo’ version swell up, drowning out all further unseemly squelching.

Over 38 minutes, we have journeyed from the sublime to the ridiculous. From now on, I’ll be sticking with the sublime.

 

Randomising the record collection.

As of today, there are 9685 physical items in my music collection, lovingly catalogued on Excel (can you tell I’ve not been in full time employment for a while?) and spread between vinyl, CD and cassette. Using random.org, I’m going to pick an item at random, play it, and write about it (or, more likely, around it). I shan’t be spending vast amounts of time on research; in order for this to work within a feasible time-span, immediacy shall be my watchword. This may become a regular series, or I might get bored. We shall see.

I am about to pick a number for the very first time. Please let it not be a crap one! Lord knows, I’ve got enough of those!

#7861 – Michel’le – No More Lies.
(12-inch single, 1990.) (Discogs tracklisting)

01-michel'le

Well… it could have been better, but it could have been so much worse. A tolerable starting point, although listening to four versions of the same song on the 12″ single has stretched its charms a tad too thinly.

I have only the faintest recollection of this track: a Billboard Top 10 hit in 1989, which only got as far as #78 over here, in March 1990. Although I had DJ-ed my last paid gig at the end of 1989, it would still take a couple of years to shake the habit of hoovering up as many new releases as I could afford, every week, at the Selectadisc singles shop on Market Street in Nottingham. There must have been a review, probably in Record Mirror, where I was still methodically panning James Hamilton’s dance column for nuggets. This was another habit which I could have done with breaking.

With three members of NWA on production credits – headed by Dr. Dre, who also guests on the track – it’s a surprise to re-discover that the original gangsta rappers had made such an early detour into commercial vocal R&B/new jack swing. There’s scant connection to their hip hop work, barring a “Funky Drummer” sample that’s foregrounded on the A-side’s “Extended Dance Mix 1”, but there’s a relentless toughness to the track which vaguely chimes with their aesthetic.

Michel’le – pictured on the sleeve with a wristwatch fastened around her ankle, was that ever a thing? – was in a relationship with Dre at the time, and the couple had a son the following year. Hasty research (yeah, I succumbed) suggests that theirs was not always the happiest of unions (to put it mildly), which adds a certain frisson to the song’s subject matter. It begins and ends with Dre on the phone, professing his love, but this is swiftly undermined by the singer’s accusatory tirade. (“I’m not a sucker, chill out, your nose is growing, Pinocchio.”) During the break, there’s a yowling rock guitar solo, which feels over-long on the Dance Mix, and more acceptably contained on the B-side’s “Album Version 1.”

Amusingly, the fourth and final track – the “More Lies Version” – extends the dialogue, as Dre ramps up the mendacious telephonic BS while Michel’le scornfully rebuffs his every parry, like a deleted scene at the end of a DVD. Unlike her singing voice, her speaking voice is weirdly squeaky, almost child-like. Having been bludgeoned by the previous three versions, (confession: I couldn’t make it to the end of the Instrumental), it came as sweet relief to unearth a few fresh ideas.

I never bought much new jack swing. It was the first shift in US R&B that alienated me, and the passing of time hasn’t made me retrospectively fonder. Too harsh, too cold, too much thwack and not enough… well, swing. But at least I dabbled, and gave it a fair shot. I doubt the randomiser will be throwing up any further examples. Bobby Brown, stop looking at me like that.

 

 

7 Songs From My Youth

First posted on Facebook, as a series of seven daily posts.

Day 1.

I’ve been nominated by JFH, a long-lost friend from university days, to take part in ‪#‎musikchallenge‬: seven songs from my youth, posted over a week. Here’s my first choice: a song I fell obsessively in love with, shortly after my twelfth birthday. Or rather, it’s two songs, contrasting but inseparably linked. The first is inspired by a painting; the second is a miniature lament. Both are exquisitely put together, with a level of invention and craft that I had never heard before. Thus began my six-month journey from glam to prog.

Day 2.

For Day 2, I’ve skipped past prog and gone straight to punk. Some historical context for you: having signed to CBS records, who had promised them full artistic control, The Clash were pissed off that the label had released Remote Control – one of the lesser tracks from their debut album – as their second single, without consulting the band. “Our next single will be called COMPLETE Control”, they snarled.

And so it came to pass. Produced by Lee Perry, pioneer of dub reggae, the track journeys from petulance to paranoia, climaxing with an exultant roar of defiance. For me, it’s their finest single. (And then they released an under-par follow-up and an iffy second album, at which point I lost interest, hey ho.)

Please play this with as much volume as your circumstances will allow!

Day 3.

It’s Day 3 of ‪#‎musikchallenge‬: seven songs from my youth, all of which I fell obsessively in love with. For me, Blondie’s Dreaming absolutely captures a time, a place and a renewed state of mind, as I emerged from a thoroughly ghastly adolescence and began to enjoy being a teenager at last. I felt carefree, newly connected to the world outside of my own head, full of optimism for what lay ahead – and this song, more than any other, provided the perfect soundtrack.

Day 4.

For Day 4, I’ve chosen one of the many songs from my “formative” years that allowed me to wallow in my youthful angst, of which there was more than plenty. But in this case, I felt that the singer (Howard Devoto) wasn’t just indulging in self-denigrating self-pity, but that he was also mocking himself for doing so, in a sardonic, almost self-glorifying way. And so, even as I wallowed along with him, I could smile at myself in the process. (Oh, and there’s a killer bassline too, from the wonderful Barry Adamson.)

Day 5.

It’s Day 5 of ‪#‎musikchallenge‬, and we’ve reached the “shared student house off Derby Road” years. I wanted to pick something that JFH and I would have danced to – probably at the Babel club on Huntingdon Street, which for some strange reason became our favourite bopping shop until the much cooler Asylum opened in late 1982 – but the main reason for my obsessive love of this song was its almost comically overblown romantic idealism, which matched my own state of mind with pinpoint accuracy. I had started coming out to friends, but was still a few months away from taking my first timid steps onto the Nottingham gay scene. In the meantime, I pined – and “The Look Of Love” was tailor-made for pining.

Day 6.

For Day 6, I’m back in West Berlin, dancing till dawn on Sunday mornings at the vast Metropol club in Nollendorfplatz: anonymous in the crowd, streaks in my hair, lasers in my eyes, “room odorisers” wafting through the air around me, still a little over-awed by the whole spectacle. Of the many club tracks that soundtracked my coming of age on the gay scene, this one hung around for longer than most – I must have heard it almost every weekend for well over a year – and although it might sound cheesy to modern ears, it had a particularly intense energy rush that drew me into the middle of the floor, time after time.

Day 7.

It’s now April 1985. I’m back from my year in Berlin, and edging towards my final exams at Nottingham University. I’ve not listened to many guitar bands of late, but a new crop of twangy, retro-tinged Americans have caught my ear: Los Lobos, Jason and the Scorchers, R.E.M… and The Long Ryders, who have just released a single, I Had A Dream. It’s my absolute favourite track of the moment, with a concluding instrumental break that’s shiver-inducingly powerful.

The Long Ryders are touring the UK, and they’ve booked a Friday night date in the compact, low-ceilinged, super-humid basement of The Garage, a nightclub in the Lace Market. I go down there with Dymbel and his good pal, the late DS. We head for the front, inches away from the band, and thrash about wildly – it’s a great gig.

The following night, in another nightclub, I meet K; we’ve been a couple ever since. During that time, I’ve fallen in love with countless more songs, and I’ve yet to lose my enthusiasm for discovering fresh new music. But as much as I still value music as a central part of my life, I don’t think I’m anywhere near as obsessive in my attachment to specific tracks: playing them over and over again for weeks – or even months – on end, as if nothing matters more in life.

So let’s leave me here, on my last night as a single young man: slicked in sweat and slopped lager, and leaping around to a slamming new band, wholly unaware of how fundamentally his life was about to change. Thanks to JFH for suggesting that I take this ride, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the tunes!

 

Who are the longest running UK bloggers?

Since my Twitter feed is currently getting jammed up with @replies on this topic, let’s take the subject to a more appropriate platform.

In order to qualify, bloggers need to be a) based in the UK, b) still blogging now, c) with all their archives still in one place (so multiple URLs are still allowed).

Cut-off date: February 2002.

Please let us know of any omissions!

(Update: I’m getting progressively more relaxed about c), as you’ll see below.)

12 March 1999 – Giles Turnbull

21 May 1999 – Lindsay Marshall: Bifurcated Rivets

10 June 1999 – Gordon McLean (under various blog titles)

January 2000 – Meg Pickard (formerly not.so.soft and meish, last updated June 2013, old archives set to private)

26 February 2000 – Robyn Wilder (formerly Orbyn, no old archives)

4 March 2000 – Darren: Linkmachinego

early March 2000 – Ann Carrier: Pixeldiva (not updated since February 2014)

7 March 2000 – John Robinson: Sore Eyes

15 March 2000 – Phil Gyford (see also Phil’s comment on The Haddock Directory, which started in 1996)

20 March 2000 – Jez Higgins: The Coffee Grounds

26 March 2000 – Tom Ewing: Freaky Trigger (formerly New York London Paris Munich)

29 April 2001 – Masher: Masher.tv (formerly Masher’s Blog) (older archives missing)

16 May 2000 – Mo Morgan (some long hiatuses, archives incomplete)

31 May 2000 – Nick Jordan (archives incomplete)

3 June 2000 – Cal Henderson: iamcal.com (not updated since February 2014)

25 September 2000 – Graybo: Grayblog

3 October 2000 – Brooke Magnanti (formerly methylsalicylate and Belle De Jour, no old archives)

15 October 2000 – Vaughan Simons: An Unreliable Witness (formerly Wherever You Are, last public post November 2013, all later entries currently set to private)

12 January 2001 – Alan Taylor: Oddverse (formerly Disconnected Zeitgeist)

12 January 2001 – Simon Hayes Budgen: No Rock and Roll Fun

1 February 2001 – Jonathan Green: Overyourhead

4 July 2001 – Matilda: Matilda The Cat

11 July 2001 – Julian Bond: Voidstar

late  July 2001 – Anna Pickard: Little Red Boat

29 July 2001 – Stuart Ian Burns: Feeling Listless

29 July 2001 – Dave Kennamatic: Blogging Up The Works (formerly Kennamatic)

12 September 2001 – Karen/Erzsebel: Uborka / Rise

October 2001 – Mark Sinker: hashtag tashlan (formerly radio free narnia)

30 October 2001 – Mike Atkinson: Troubled Diva (many long hiatuses in recent years!)

6 November 2001 – Perry de Havilland & Natalie Solent (and others): Samizdata

January 2002 – Hg: Hydragenic (archives wiped until 2004)

4 January 2002 – Marcello Carlin (formerly The Church Of Me)

16 January 2002 – Sasha Frieze: Sashinka (last updated September 2013)

5 February 2002 – Gert: Gertsamtkunstwerk (formerly Mad Musings Of Me)

6 February 2002 – Alastair Coleman: Scaryduck

27 February 2002 – Arseblog (based outside the UK, but British content)

Stuff what I wrote in 2013

January:

February:

March:

April:

May:

June:

July:

August:

September:

October:

November:

December:

Mike’s Top 50 Albums of 2013

1. Daft Punk: Random Access Memories
2. Harleighblu: Forget Me Not
3. These New Puritans: Field Of Reeds
4. Kacey Musgraves: Same Trailer Different Park

5. Lady: Lady
6. Rudimental: Home
7. John Grant: Pale Green Ghosts
8. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires Of The City

9. Arctic Monkeys: AM
10. Hookworms: Pearl Mystic
11. The Stepkids: Troubadour
12. Fists: Phantasm

13. Laurel Halo: Chance Of Rain
14. Suede: Bloodsports
15. Disclosure: Settle
16. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Jama Ko

17. Sleaford Mods: Austerity Dogs
18. I Am Kloot: Let It All In
19. Alison Moyet: the minutes
20. Dawn Of Midi: Dysnomia

21. Matthew E. White: Big Inner
22. Pantha Du Prince & The Bell Laboratory: Elements Of Light
23. Bombino: Nomad
24. Ballaké Sissoko: At Peace

25. Fuck Buttons: Slow Focus
26. Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark: English Electric
27. Emma Sweeney: Pangea
28. !!!: Thr!!!er

29. Factory Floor: Factory Floor
30. John Wizards: John Wizards
31. Rokia Traore: Beautiful Africa
32. Mayer Hawthorne: Where Does This Door Go

33. Otis Taylor: My World Is Gone
34. Jessy Lanza: Pull My Hair Back
35. Beyonce: BEYONCE
36. Georges Vert: An Electric Mind

37. The Full English: The Full English
38. Boy George: This Is What I Do
39. Marc Reeves: Of An End
40. Forest Fire: Screens
41. Quadron: Avalanche
42. Mountains: Centralia
43. Little Boots: Nocturnes
44. Primal Scream: More Light
45. Darkside: Psychic
46. Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita: Clychau Dibon
47. Heidi Talbot: Angels Without Wings
48. Tamikrest: Chatma
49. Haim: Days Are Gone
50. The Strypes: Snapshot

It’s all good.

Karen at Uborka asked:

Looking back, what was so great about 2013?

This was my reply.

2013 was a landmark year. After years of struggle, K escaped from a ghastly work situation, and entered a hard-earned new phase of fulfilment, security and freedom. I haven’t seen him so happy in years. This cushioned the blow of my redundancy, which would have been a disaster even a year earlier, but which in turn set me free.

2014 will be another year of massive change, as we leave Nottingham and Derbyshire, and relocate to a dream home in a beautiful part of the world. I don’t know exactly what lies ahead, but I can’t remember the last time I felt so optimistic at the start of a new year. It’s all good.

20140101-194641.jpg

Mike’s Top 100 albums of 2012

During 2012, I switched to working from home, after a spell of commuting to Leeds two or three times per week. Consequently, I listened to shedloads of new music. Hence, and no sniggering at the back please, a Top 100. (And if this seems excessive, be aware that the 100 was whittled down from a shortlist of 243.)

I’ve also compiled a Spotify playlist, featuring one track from each album, in ascending order of wondrousness.

1. Natalie Duncan – Devil In Me
2. Sam Lee – Ground Of Its Own
3. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
4. Actress – R.I.P.
5. Carter Tutti Void – Transverse
6. Dog Is Dead – All Our Favourite Stories
7. Loudon Wainwright III – Older Than My Old Man Now
8. Moritz Von Oswald Trio – Fetch
9. Goat – World Music
10. Laurel Halo – Quarantine
11. Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man In The Universe
12. Jessie Ware – Devotion
13. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
14. Sleaford Mods – Wank
15. Spiro – Kaleidophonica
16. Django Django – Django Django
17. Jake Bugg – Jake Bugg
18. Field Music – Plumb
19. Efterklang – Piramida
20. Tindersticks – The Something Rain
21. Saint Etienne – Words And Music By Saint Etienne
22. Kylie Minogue – The Abbey Road Sessions
23. We Show Up On Radar – Sadness Defeated
24. Beach House – Bloom
25. Matt Elliott – The Broken Man
26. Get The Blessing – OC DC
27. THEESatisfaction – awE naturalE
28. Rachel Newton – The Shadow Side
29. Batida – Batida
30. Tracey Thorn – Tinsel and Lights
31. Anna Cinzia Villani – Fimmana, mare e focu
32. Ragnhild Furebotten – Never On A Sunday
33. The Black Twig Pickers – Whompyjawed
34. Rumer – Boys Don’t Cry
35. alt-J – An Awesome Wave
36. Patti Smith – Banga
37. Cafe Iman Istanbul – Fasl-i Rembetiko
38. Troyka – Moxxy
39. Cornershop – Urban Turban
40. Calan – Jonah
41. Lone – Galaxy Garden
42. Roller Trio – Roller Trio
43. Bella Hardy – The Dark Peak and The White
44. Elton John vs Pnau – Good Morning To The Night
45. Neneh Cherry & The Thing – The Cherry Thing
46. Cornshed Sisters – Tell Tales
47. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
48. Dexys – One Day I’m Going To Soar
49. Ebo Taylor – Appia Kwa Bridge
50. Brad Mehldau Trio – Ode
51. Hello Skinny – Hello Skinny
52. Bee Mask – When We Were Eating Unripe Pears
53. Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio
54. Auntie Flo – Future Rhythm Machine
55. Esperanza Spalding – Radio Music Society
56. Bob Dylan – Tempest
57. Neil Cowley Trio – The Face Of Mount Molehill
58. Lindstrom – Smalhans
59. Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now?
60. Dirty Three – Toward The Low Sun
61. Seu Jorge – Musicas para Churrasco, Vol. 1
62. Storm Corrosion – Storm Corrosion
63. Lee Fields & The Expressions – Faithful Man
64. Lau – Race The Loser
65. Icebreaker – Apollo
66. Plankton Wat – Spirits
67. Mungolian Jetset – Mungodelics
68. Red Baraat – Chaal Baby
69. Mala – Mala In Cuba
70. Roc Marciano – Reloaded
71. The Swans – The Seer
72. Hannah James and Sam Sweeney – State and Ancientry
73. Scott Walker – Bish Bosch
74. Bright Light Bright Light – Make Me Believe In Hope
75. The Unthanks with Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band – Diversions Vol. 2
76. Land Observations – Roman Roads IV – XI
77. Cooly G – Playin’ Me
78. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
79. The xx – Coexist
80. Jack White – Blunderbuss
81. NZCA/LINES – NZCA/LINES
82. Staff Benda Bilili – Bouger Le Monde!
83. Jonas Munk – Pan
84. R. Kelly – Write Me Back
85. Four Tet – Pink
86. Hilary Hahn & Hauschka – Silfra
87. Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves Of Destiny – Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose
88. Chairlift – Something
89. Talabarte – Talabarte
90. School Of Seven Bells – Ghostory
91. The Touré-Raichel Collective – The Tel Aviv Session
92. Josephine – Portrait
93. Dean McPhee – Son of the Black Peace
94. Anywhere – Anywhere
95. Cody Chesnutt – Landing On A Hundred
96. Portico Quartet – Portico Quartet
97. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
98. Matthew E. White – Big Inner
99. The Invisible – Rispah
100. Anda Union – The Wind Horse

Mike’s favourite albums of 2011

1 PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

I’ve respected and admired PJ Harvey for many years – and I’ve got almost the complete set of albums to prove it – but until now, the respect and admiration has rarely translated into out-and-out love. It’s difficult to locate the precise reasons, but this latest reinvention of PJ as some sort of post-traumatised Cassandra – head-dressed and gowned, brandishing her auto-harp like a lyre, skipping across charred battlefields with ghoulishly unnerving gaiety – is compellingly complete, and perfectly timed.

2 Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise

We had booked a holiday in Goa, but K was too ill to travel, so we took a badly needed week in Cornwall instead. Acting on a recommendation, we checked ourselves into a split-level barn conversion, owned by the ex-wife of a rock legend. Although the design favoured form over function in a way that might have been irksome to some, we revelled in its minimalism. One bright morning, as Nicolas Jaar’s album reverberated through the barn’s high-spec, surround-sound kit (well, you’d expect nothing less), I found myself pacing around the double-height living space, experiencing each sonic element as a distinct, architectural plane (*), and realising that the building offered a perfect locational fit for Jaar’s equally sleek, pared-down, clean-lined approach. The association has stayed with me since, taking me back to my “happy place” with every repeat playing.

(*) No, I wasn’t on drugs. But I can see why you might think that.

3 James Blake – James Blake

My initial distaste for Blake’s fractured, treated vocals seemed insurmountable, but something kept pulling me back, as it sometimes does with records which I think I hate. It all clicked into place when Said The Gramophone posted James Litherland’s “Where To Turn”, covered by his son as “The Wilhelm Scream”. “Cover” is the wrong word, though. “Palimpsest” expresses it better, and really that’s what the whole album’s about: rubbing away at song structures and vocal lines, and smearing over the residues. It’s an approach which I’ve long valued in painting – think of Gerhard Richter, for example – and Blake’s album proves that it can work in music, too.

4 Origamibiro – Shakkei

There are seven albums from Nottingham acts in this year’s list, which is six more than there were in 2010. That’s partly because 2011 turned out to be a landmark year for the music scene in my home city, but it’s also because I finally sat up, took notice, and had my ears opened to what was lying right under my nose. I reviewed Origamibiro’s Shakkei for the current issue of LeftLion magazine; have a read, take a listen, and see what you think.

5 Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest

Music as scented candle? In this instance, I’m guilty as charged – for if there are darker undertows to be found in any of these songs, then I have remained contentedly unaware of them. Maybe it’s a careering-towards-fifty thing, but “soothing” is a quality that I seem to have started valuing more highly, and in this respect, Gillian Welch’s music has soothed more than most. I like the sparseness, the timelessness, the gentle intimacy, and the relaxed, unhurried mood, which transfers itself from artist to listener as the album progresses… even when the listener is equally focussed on reading the weekend newspapers.

6 Katy B – On A Mission

I only went clubbing three times in 2011, which is more than most men of my age would countenance, but the London gay scene can be quite accommodating to the older gentleman, and I still felt just about able to blend. Katy B’s style of club music didn’t feature on their playlists, so these places did nothing to help me place her music in its full context, but – just as with the terrific student house-share sitcom Fresh Meat – I can still find enough familiar elements to make the imaginative leap. Clearly a committed clubber herself, Katy succeeds in communicating her love of club culture to the rest of us, winningly combining the roles of shining-eyed evangelist, front-line reporter and dancefloor companion. At the two live shows that I witnessed, teenage girls dominated the front rows. I don’t see that too often – not with female artists, at least – and so it cheered me to think that this particular mission had, for once, hit its right and proper target.

7 Lou Reed and Metallica – Lulu

I almost felt bad about placing this year’s critical consensus choice at the top of my list, but the critical consensus and I didn’t always converge so happily, and here’s the prime piece of evidence. The Wire might have placed Lulu high in their year-end poll, and Wim Wenders might have raved about it, but these people are hardly my usual kindred spirits, and as for everybody else: what’s WRONG with you all, this is GENIUS, you blinkered FOOLS! OK, so it’s overblown and preposterous genius, which teeters at times on the brink of utter risibility, but what the HELL is wrong with THAT, for pity’s sake? This will be an unimpeachable cult classic in thirty years’ time, you mark my words.

8 Paul Simon – So Beautiful Or So What

His best since Graceland, they all say. Well, I’m no expert. Still, there’s no denying that this is a masterful blend of great songwriting and superb musicianship, beautifully arranged and produced. Fantastic live show over the summer, as well.

9 Robag Wruhme – Thora Vukk

A comparatively beatier, equally pleasurable companion to the Nicolas Jaar album, which shares its knack for interweaving atmospheric field recordings with understated arrangements.

10 Souvaris – Souvaris Souvaris

My last discovery of 2011, which I’ll be reviewing for the next LeftLion. It’s also the final album for Souvaris, who play their farewell gig at Nottingham Contemporary on the night of my fiftieth birthday. A shame that I’ve left it so late to discover them, but better late than never. To be filed under “instrumental post rock”, I guess, but this spans a wide range of moods, often within the same track.

11 Gallery 47 – Fate Is The Law

This was my most played album over the summer, while I was putting in the research for my Guardian feature on the rising fortunes of Nottingham’s music scene. Here’s what I wrote about it for LeftLion.

12 Ron Sexsmith – Long Player Late Bloomer

Thanks to a rigorously organised routine for scanning new releases on Spotify, Ron Sexsmith finally drew my attention, God-knows-how-many albums into his career. (I’d heard some of his work before, on the second Feist album, but unwittingly so.) Apparently, his choice of Bob Rock as producer ruffled a few loyalist feathers, but the high-impact immediacy of Rock’s production felt, to me at least, like a good fit for Sexsmith’s songs. A wonderful show at the just-revamped Rescue Rooms brought out the best in them as well, particularly the irresistibly hooky opener “Get In Line” and the achingly affecting closer “Nowadays”.

13 Wolf + Lamb vs Soul Clap – DJ-Kicks

Fifteen years ago, I was buying more mix CDs than single artist albums. In 2011, I bought just three. This was by far and away my favourite: a restrained yet purposeful set, which readily lends itself to home listening. It doesn’t get properly beaty until the second half, by which time I’m warmed up and ready to, um, twitch my toes, just ever so slightly.

14 White Denim – D

I’ve never been able to reconcile White Denim’s live sets with their recorded material, which doesn’t fully represent their looser, wilder on-stage brilliance. With D, the difference finally ceased to matter. Although they still feel to me like two distinct propositions, this is where the two sides finally evened up, quality-wise. Best track: “Back At The Farm”, which presses all the buttons that require pressing.

15 Little Dragon – Ritual Union

I was alerted to Little Dragon when interviewing John Grant, who has been spending a lot of time in their home city of Gothenburg. When assembling my Best of 2011 Spotify playlist (which I should make more noise about, because it’s great), I began to detect a certain stylistic mood, which runs through many of the picks, particularly on the more electronic (but still song-orientated) end of the spectrum. I can’t quite describe that mood for you now, but it’s very much present here.

(That John Grant interview was one of my highlights of the year, by the way. We were booked for fifteen minutes, but he ended up giving me forty-five. Oh, and then he played the best show that I saw all year. And if the rules had been set differently, then his Queen of Denmark would have been my album of the year, for the second year running. Yes, I’m quite the fan.)

16 Radiohead – The King Of Limbs

As with Loutallica, I feel out of step with Radiohead, whose album slipped out without much fanfare (at least when you compare it to In Rainbows), before slipping away again just as quietly. Once my favourite band, Radiohead had been losing me by degrees from Amnesiac onwards, but whereas the much-vaunted In Rainbows raised little more than a yawn, The King Of Limbs engaged me in a way that none of their work since Kid A has managed to do. Most played track: the skittering, enveloping off-kilter funk of “Morning Mr. Magpie”.


17 Forest Fire – Staring At The X
18 tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
19 SBTRKT – SBTRKT
20 June Tabor – Ashore


21 Bella Hardy – Songs Lost & Stolen
22 Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
23 Owiny Sigoma Band – Owiny Sigoma Band
24 Tom Waits – Bad As Me


25 Fatoumata Diawara – Fatou
26 Dirty Projectors & Bjork – Mount Wittenberg Orca
27 Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica
28 Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire


29 Tinariwen – Tassili
30 Panda Bear – Tomboy
31 Hhymn – In The Depths
32 Tamikrest – Toumastin


33 Swimming – Ecstatics International
34 Amira – Amulette
35 Trichotomy – The Gentle War
36 Ry Cooder – Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down


37 The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
38 Planningtorock – W
39 Manière Des Bohémiens – When The Road Bends
40 C-Mone – Dancing With Mirrors

Uborka Friday Cocktail Orders.

Humbled by your collective self-effacement, I have waivered the PIMP YER STUFF rule. And in accordance with @merialc’s request, all cocktails will contain added flecks of gold.

Please collect your orders from the bar. Your ambient cocktail-sipping soundtrack can be found here.

For me: a Long Island Iced Tea, in memory of my happy sojourn in Manila last year.

For @erzsebel: a Bloody Mary. Her choice has something to do with wasps. I have no idea why, as I have always left entomological matters to my civil partner @ktd (a former expert on the subject).

For @Gert: “one of those champagne and Guinness things”. Black Velvet, I believe. I apologise for the lack of Alannah Myles on the mix CD.

For @gordon: a Peartini. I’ve always been more of a lychee-tini man myself, but each to his own.

For @helen_kara: a Margarita, fit for a domestic goddess.

For @graybouk: a vodka, lime and soda. GRAYBOQUOTE: “I love the way that my tune has two listeners – I’m so proud!”

For @uwitness: a Lomg Slow Domestos Up Against The Wall, with ice and iron filings. So much classier than these modern-day Vim-based alternatives.

And finally, for @TrailDragon: a large flaming Sambuca, to wash away the insipid taste of the carrots on which he has been chomping. Just don’t start playing THE SAMBUCA GAME, alright?

The year has been 2004, the blogging has been Second Wave Pre-Book Deal Old School, and I’ve been Troubled Diva Mike. I now return you to your regular hiatus. Cheers!

Uborka Friday Cocktails

HIATUS BREAKER ALERT! Following a special dispensation from @erzsebel, I am opening the bar for UBORKA COCKTAILS, for THIS AFTERNOON ONLY.

However, drinks orders will only be accepted if you PIMP YER STUFF, either on the Twitter or in this comments box. Update: I have waivered this rule, on grounds of inappropriateness to the era of British blogging which this post references.

Orders will be totted up, and drinks doled out, at 16:45 UK time.

NOTE: If you haven’t the foggiest idea what I’m on about, then please resume the default “Troubled Diva on Indefinite Blogging Hiatus” position.

UPDATE: COCKTAILS ARE SERVED.