Alex Turner as sleazy romantic-cum-nervous wreck is best evinced by “Do I Wanna Know”, in which he burbles on the brink of being overwhelmed with infatuation. “I’ve dreamt about you nearly every night this week”, he confesses in the first verse, and later, afraid he’s missed his chance, he asks, “Been wondering if your heart’s still open / And if so, I wanna know what time it shuts”. Continue reading Summer well
With violent simplicity, a four-day holiday teases with the trappings of summer. Relinquish reason, and fall for this meteorological trick. Continue reading RSD07
A friend’s sister has been in town, visiting from the Garden State. She brings with her the baggage of a gentler pre-campus life: sprinklers on lawns, the station wagon, and the sodium-glare of streetlights on wide tree-lined avenues. Nothing evokes endless estival evenings like Real Estate‘s second album, Days. But at a certain point, I had begun to wonder if Matthew Mondanile’s plangent, cyclical music would overwhelm the elegant simplicity of his childhood friend Martin Courtney’s lyrics, which are lifted wholesale from the imagery of dusky suburbia. Continue reading Eternal summers turn to fall
A great clue to assist in the decoding of Beck’s Morning Phase lies in the packaging of his last proper full-length, Modern Guilt. Released in 2008 with an unbearably au courant title, its paranoia was more in tune with the America of the Cold War, and its cover was inescapably an homage to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Crisp Swiss typography and a shot-from-the-hip castoff photograph was an elegant visual counterpoint to the music within, produced by Danger Mouse and rich with rubbery synths and psych rock tropes. Continue reading Rock of ages
Over breakfast, reading Giles Coren and Matthew Parris in The Times, I was forced to conclude that schooling kills creativity, and economists’ predictions are not so much dismal science as abysmal science. I suppose I am doubly screwed, then. Continue reading Unfriends like these
So it’s basically summer, my life as an undergraduate is over, and the time has come to stop writing so many album reviews. This is not my interpretation of branching out; rather, this is me writing about a song that sounds so forlorn and defeatist, I can’t help but love it.
Much of Beck’s 2008 album Modern Guilt is about dread, but that’s not really a surprise, given his past form. In 2002, he released Sea Change, a break-up album, which saw him forgo the usual junkyard of samples and hip hop beats for a melodramatic palette of orchestral washes and angsty textures. Where Modern Guilt diverges from the Sea Change template, however, is that it doesn’t sound like an unhappy album, for the most part. Built on crisp grooves and clean guitar tones, with occasional pulses of vintage synths, it bears the unmistakeable stamp of its producer, Danger Mouse. Even when he’s moaning about post-millennial blues or the titular modern guilt, the album evokes visions of sunset shorelines, end-of-summer barbecues, and old school romance.
Beck saves all his sonic misery for the closing track, “Volcano”, which stutters into being before settling into a gloomy beat. Over a tenderly strummed acoustic guitar and a deathly mass of harmonies, Beck intones unexceptional deadbeat imagery: “Was it all an illusion, or a mirage gone bad?” he asks. But shot through this predictable guff, he spins us an intriguing yarn about a “Japanese girl who jumped into the volcano”. As the music drifts between sweeping string arrangements and the sparser verses, Beck sings of a longing for man’s elemental home, in “the womb of the world”. At the end of the song, he shows his full hand: he’s not searching for the primordial soup or the pit of hell, he just wants to “warm [his] bones / On that fire a while”.
“Volcano” is the kind of heart-on-sleeve song Beck’s yearned to write in the years that followed Sea Change. But, as he told the New York Times in the week preceding Modern Guilt’s release,
“It’s harder and harder to write songs these days […] I’m always slashing and burning, going, ‘Is this too on the sleeve?’ But if you’re not up front like that then you’re hiding behind something, so it’s a real manoeuvring.”
On “Volcano”, it’s like he’s given up trying to play the part of the cool and insouciant freewheeler, and wants to confront his real persona, with nothing to hide behind. The song is raw, and doesn’t play the same game as what has come before it on the album. Danger Mouse’s presence is deft—an occasional glitch in the rhythm; the soft thump of the bass drum—and doesn’t get in the way of what is a beautifully uncompromising portrait of the artist. Here, he’s not so much bemoaning a modern state of mind, as critically analysing himself.
“I’ve been drinking all these tears so long
All I’ve got left is the taste of salt in my mouth.”
At times, in the past, Beck has seemed calculating about his image: on the tour supporting The Information, he employed puppeteers to mirror his every move on stage. He seemed liable to disappear into his own cultivated image. On “Volcano”, he appears to appreciate and abandon these efforts, in favour of a more naturalistic approach to making music, and the resulting song is an exercise in restraint, which still delivers an emotional sucker-punch.
Hey, like I said, blame Spotify for me not getting round to hearing a ton of new music this year. I spent much of 2009 engrossed in the back catalogues of Spoon, Les Savy Fav, Beck and Yo La Tengo, so you can understand why a lot of trendy young things passed me by.
So, from now till the end of the year, I hereby promise to – at the very least – listen to the following albums of 2009 that my friends have been haranguing me for avoiding:
The Mountain Goats – The Life Of The World To Come
Girls – Album
Japandroids – Post-Nothing
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
Neon Indian – Psychic Chasms
Passion Pit – Manners
Cymbals Eat Guitars – Why There Are Mountains
A Sunny Day In Glasgow – Ashes Grammar
Volcano Choir – Unmap
JJ – JJ N° 2
I seem to be starting every post nowadays with “Just a quick update to say…” so here comes another one.
My hands are somewhat tied, musically, at present, owing to an overload/guilt trip about actually getting down to some revision. Predictably, I’ve spent the entire year slavishly scribbling down notes without really understanding what was going on. Consequently, I should now have my face firmly held to the grindstone.
While I revise, I do however like to listen to music. Usually I favour stuff with a strong rhythmic element – LCD Soundsystem, Hercules & Love Affair, Prinzhorn Dance School, Portishead, Massive Attack – but I also find myself working more productively with instrumental post rock, which has the effect of letting me “leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime.” Albums like Explosions In The Sky’s Those Who Tell The Truth Will Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Will Live Forever and Tortoise’s landmark TNT are ideal for this purpose, as are most of M83’s albums.
When I’m not revising, I’ve also been exploring the depths of Spotify, and have had the following albums of frequent rotation:
The Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
Konono No. 1 – Congotronics
Amadou & Mariam – Welcome To Mali
Antibalas – Talkatif
John Rutter – Gloria
Various – Nigeria 70: Lagos Jump
Antony & The Johnsons – The Crying Light
Beck – Sea Change
Doves – Kingdom Of Rust
Robert Wyatt – Comicopera
Hockey Night – Keep Guessin’
All of which I can heartily endorse. Certainly if you’re in the UK, you’ve no excuse not to get swallowed up by Spotify, because anyone can sign up.
For those of you who still believe, after all the intervening years, that Damon Albarn’s songwriting is rooted in the oom-pah music-hall stomp of Britpop, I cannot recommend enough that you try on both 1997’s Blur and 1999’s 13, both of which are prime examples of Blur giving up on the style that made them such household names, and instead choosing to pursue more experimental and at times difficult music, taking heed of far more wide-ranging influences.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Britpop, which saw Blur win the race to be #1 on the Singles chart – with the cringeworthy “Country House” – but Oasis win the battle of the albums, with (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, Blur soon realised the fickle nature of British music, and how quickly the public – who at the time were enchanted by the elision of music and politics made real by the superb efforts of our dear leader, Tony Blair – could abandon a group who they had previously loved. Rather than continue to pump out album-after-album of derivative, uninteresting music (I’m looking at you, Oasis), Blur instead fled to the country they had previously artistically slaughtered – America – in search of new ideas.
The resulting album, Blur, saw Graham Coxon take on a much more prominent role, influenced as he was by mainstays of American alternative music, such as Pavement and Beck, while Albarn’s lyrics took on a decidely more introspective angle, a theme that was to be extended on their next album. Blur remained reasonably commercially successful in the UK, but, crucially, it was equally a hit in America, whose audiences immediately ‘got’ “Song 2”. Even now, I think the album is a great testament to the breadth of the band’s talents, and the opener, “Beetlebum”, is right up there in my top three Blur songs. The band, freed from the pomp and circumstance of Britpop, produced an album that was bleaker, wilder and harsher, but, importantly, a strong melodic vein flows right through, giving it just enough warmth for the listener to want to come back to it.
Story has it that, during the recording process for Blur, Coxon refused to let anyone, including himself, retune his guitar, believing that the truest artistic statement would be to embrace the lo-fi. Perhaps thankfully, producer Stephen Street, horrified at the prospect of unveiling an album horribly out-of-tune to the record company, would secretly come into the studio in the dead of night to retune it!
One of the spirits that leans heavily on Blur is that of Bowie. Unashamed to join the canon of great British songwriters, Albarn’s compositions share a talent for experimentation, and also something intangibly similar, with those of Bowie – none more so than one of the closing tracks, “Strange News From Another Star”, which feels almost violated in its raw emotion. The combination of harsh electronic feedback and sweet acoustic guitar is painful in its emotional tug. With a typical sense of duty and sincerity, Albarn later performed it for a BBC Radio session honouring John Peel, the video of which is at the top of this post. In this context, it is a haunting and beautiful tribute to another demi-god of British music.