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20 favourite albums (in no particular order): #10 Beth Orton: ‘Trailer Park’ (1996)

9 Jul

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My introduction to the music of Beth Orton sticks in my mind as it was quite random and quirky. I was stood in the local WH Smiths looking through some music magazine (that detail escapes me) and a female friend I knew from the local indie-rock club appeared next to me, saying ‘Hello’. She then spots a photo of Beth Orton in the magazine and tells me, “Oh, that’s Beth Orton. She’s great. She also looks like you, if you were a woman”.  Before I had chance to respond to this amusing and mildly audacious opinion, my friend said, “she’s great, you should give her a listen”. Gender swap considerations aside, I did, and nearly 20 years later I’m still listening.

Beth’s original mixture of folk and electronic is now a bit blasé, I suppose, in the sense that everybody else has done it since, but taken on its own merit this album still satisfies. At this point in her career Beth had already recorded a song written by her idol John Martyn (“I don’t wanna know about evil”), and Martyn’s influence looms large on Trailer Park, with the style never being completely folk, but blending into a beautiful ‘other’. The combination of acoustic guitars and beats leans more to the traditionally folky than the dance arena, despite the input of Andrew Weatherall and William Orbit. So Trailer Park is essentially a folk record, and its modern trappings don’t detract for a second from the fact that it’s a very British folk product; even the American desert landscapes in the videos can’t dilute that

The opening track “She cries your name” always evoked images of surf battered Scottish islands to me, and the slightly eerie sound staging used to put me in mind of a more electronic Wicker Man soundtrack. It’s a highlight of the album, and while Beth has always been lyrically vague, being able to project your own interpretation onto some of her songs has always been something of a pleasure.

The clichéd appraisal of Trailer Park was that it was the mid to late ‘90s clubbers album of choice when on a ‘come down’ after a night of raving. I’d say Trailer Park has more to offer than that, and remains an engrossing listen whatever your state of mind and body. Beth would follow this up with a more accomplished album (1999’s Central Reservation) and her talent has matured nicely over the two decades since. Still, Trailer Park still offers an aural comfort blanket of considered calm, and Beth’s sometimes fragile and haunting vocal gives the ambiguous lyrics some touching human quality. Trailer Park is an album that isn’t often shouted about, but one that I don’t think suits such bawdy advertising.  Go and give it a listen and you’ll be eagerly captured by its quiet charms.

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Beth Orton’s sixth studio album ‘Kidsticks’ was released on ANTI Records on the 27th May 2016.

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20 favourite albums (in no particular order): #4: Saint Etienne: ‘Foxbase Alpha’ (1991)

13 May

 

Foxbase Alpha

Too indie to appeal to the dance crowd and too dance to appeal to the indie crowd? Some cynical music fans might have once held that view of Saint Etienne, whose intriguing but slightly fey name (taken from the French football team) hinted that they weren’t the group likely to be crowding the dance floor of the local rave or packing out the local Academy. What Saint Etienne actually were, at a time when a lot of us perhaps least expected it (in the grunge and dance focused music world of the early ’90s), was a genuinely wonderful pop group. By ‘pop’, I mean catchy, commercial and lightweight, but also ‘pop’ in the sense that Richard Hamilton probably meant, when he defined the art movement in the late ‘50s. They were in love with the mass culture, but were also able to sift for those nuggets of emotive gold that define all our lives; and it’s that attention to the milieu of everyday life and the emotion of nostalgia helped lift Saint Etienne into a different league. They loved what they did and still do, but they could also make us feel something.

Some of my most unlikely friends became Saint Etienne fans. My love of ‘60s pop made me instantly ‘get’ some of the Etienne’s influences, but that doesn’t instantly explain one friend, who had no love of that or the contemporary dance scene which also spawned the band.  Saint Etienne had a way of appealing to different people for very different reasons. There was something about Saint Etienne that a lot of people found to their liking, no matter what their usual choice of listening.

Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs formed Saint Etienne in 1990, and originally they were going to have a new female vocalist for every new single. Someone pointed out that this might prove problematic if they ever took to the road, so they wisely enlisted Sarah Cracknell as the permanent vocalist (whose input was far more than just a pretty face). Her honeyed vocals became as much a hallmark of Saint Etienne’s music as the magpie like samples, nostalgic lyrics and house beats.

At the time of writing (2016) Saint Etienne have become a sophisticated, if somewhat predictable, purveyor of polished pop. They’re a ‘proper’ band now, with the core trio augmented to good effect in the live shows. Perhaps it would be true to say that they’ve now sacrificed any new innovation in favour of a steady refinement of their sound, but at the time of Foxbase Alpha they were a breath of fresh air into the stagnant room of the top 40 album chart. They would occasionally venture into more experimental territory, but it’s their Anglophile brand of cool which has often kept us older fans coming back. Listening to it now, Foxbase Alpha, their first album, isn’t exactly their most accomplished or polished. But therein lies its huge charm. Foxbase is undoubtedly a love letter to London, but not one that would be easy to visit, and believe me, I’ve spent 25 years trying. Like the fantasy London of The Avengers TV series, Saint Etienne’s London is a half recalled memory of retro styling and sunny days. They make me think of chaste kisses and yearning joy with just a touch of melancholy yearning; in Saint Etienne’s London,the fountains in Trafalgar are far bigger, the sky bluer, the sight and sounds sun drenched and vibrant and the myth of ‘60s swinging London is made real and improved.

Foxbase Alpha fuses early Trip-Hop, snatches of Northern Soul and broken up samples from films and old records, with the then current House music scene as an overall bonding agent. It’s a magpie like collection of shiny pop moments, but it doesn’t belt them out like some uncouth Kylie album, and in the jingly jangly guitars the band’s indie credentials are forever in evidence.  More than anything, Foxbase always makes me feel quietly elated and heart tuggingly sad, often in the same song. “Spring” and “Nothing can stop us” must rank among some of the finest pop of the ‘90s, but I can bet you most people on the street have never heard them. Therein lies Etienne’s continued appeal: they remain a wonderful cult, and all the cooler because of their niche appeal. The band would have hits (over the decade, the sublime sounds of  “Avenue”,  “You’re in a bad way”, “Like a Motorway”, “Pale Movie”, “She’s on the phone” and “Sylvie” all charted). Tiger Bay could possibly be their finest album, in terms of commercial and critical appraisal, although both 2005’s Sounds from Turnpike House and 2012’s Words and music by Saint Etienne were fine later effort. But my heart will always be with Foxbase Alpha, which I first heard when I was really young and wanted the world to be as The Et painted it in their aural snap shots. Listening to it now, it reminds me to remain young, in the only place that really counts; in my head.

As Jon Savage said in the original liner notes, stay busy, out of phase, and in love.

 

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20 favourite albums (in no particular order). #1: The Velvet Underground: ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’ (1967).

28 Mar

Velvets

The premise is simple: twenty albums that I either play the most, are my favourites or changed my life in some way (no matter how small). Usually a combination of the three.

First mention for The Velvet Underground and Nico.

 

Discovering this album, and hearing it for the first time, was a rite of passage. That much is true, not just for me, but for millions of young people, and could still be. Lou Reed’s tales from the dark underbelly of New York made The Velvet’s the perfect band for Andy Warhol’s Factory scene. That was a marriage that didn’t last, but the Warhol connection probably gave them more exposure than might have otherwise been the case. Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker were not your average rock band, and nearly fifty years on and I concede that they are not for everyone. Yet there has probably never been a band that has so insidiously changed the music landscape, while selling so few records.

A band that never truly rocked in the traditional sense, The Velvets throbbed, pulsating with a hypnotic allure. Released in the year of Flower Power and Sgt. Pepper, The Velvet Underground and Nico was quite happy to stamp in the shallow ersatz-psychedelic puddle with its leather fetish shoes. This was music at odds with the fashionable  leanings of ’67 and that was to be its strength and hope for its own commercial longevity. There is a solid argument for this album having almost single handedly created (or at least pre-empted) Punk, New Wave. Goth and Indie rock, among other things. I won’t stretch that argument too thin, but I will say, it resonates as much now as it ever did. It’s also a decadent and dangerously sexy album, no doubt helped by the presence of chanteuse Nico. The Velvet Underground and Nico also has a very strong pop sensibility, although most of its songs have a discordant quality that renders them unlikely to make the top forty (which they never did), and yet it makes these rough diamonds all the more precious. This isn’t an album for the masses; it’s far too avant-garde for that, but the irony is it probably did inspire thousands of garage bands to form and perhaps go onto greater things (or at least a more commercial future). To the average modern music listener, this album can sound muddy and dirgy, but like panning for gold in a murky river rich with it, you will find the dazzling beauty very soon, if you truly start listening for it. Also, the one thing you want to know when you’re 15, is that, yes, the world isn’t perfect, but there are parts of it that are for you, and this album was for me. It still is. And if you missed the clues, not just in the experimental music, the iconic album art or even the band’s fashion sense….The Velvet Underground practically invented the idea of what constitutes timeless ‘cool’.

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An album isn’t just for Christmas…

22 Dec
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My favourite Christmas album. Try it, it’ll get you right in the mood.

Christmas is coming, so I hope you’re all prepared and making merry in whatever way you most like, whatever your beliefs or proclivities. It’s been a fraught month of hard work and hard luck over here, but the tinsel covered juggernaut that is Christmas is thundering my way, so best to cheer up and get on with it I think. What better activity then, than debating some choice music? No festive tunes though, I have to say.

So, I’ve just read NME’s top albums of the year and as usual decided that either I’m slightly out of touch or the NME just like promoting bands that most of us wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. To be honest though, there’s some good stuff in there (The Arctic Monkey’s AM was their top choice, incidentally, although that’s more my nephew’s sort of thing these days). I’m personally hoping for Daft Punk and Laura Marling for Christmas (their albums, not a personal appearance).

Continue reading

How I Learned to Stop Worrying, and love ABBA.

30 Jul

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As a child, although I didn’t fully realise it at the time, music was a contentious subject in my family. At an age where I didn’t think of such things, my parents had already pitched their flag in the cultural landscape of conservative (in a political as well as musical sense). In this middle of the road, anything from the mid ‘60s onwards was often viewed with an element of suspicion. If a music artist was male and had a good classic voice, they were acceptable to my mother’s ears (Tom Jones was about as radical as she got). The Beatles, incidentally, where shunned, and still are, no matter how many accolades they get. My Dad’s taste was broader, but his nostalgic affinity with the ‘40s Big Band sound eclipsed any possible awareness of then current sounds. The counter cultural revolution of the late ‘60s was the epitome of everything wrong with the younger crowd. Older than the average parents for my generation, Mum and Dad’s entertainment tastes were firmly rooted in the 1950s and early ‘60s.

There was an exception, however; a contemporary music act who my parents happily tolerated, even if they rarely bought their music. I speak of a band with a name I could remember mainly as it was a simple and potentially meaningless moniker:  ABBA. Through some act of immunity, this artist’s music escaped the culture filter that parents often unknowingly surround their young children with. So this band came to my attention at a very young age, and became my first musical love. In honesty, their place in my affections has not dimmed in over thirty years, no matter how seriously or fervently I’ve pursued other musical attractions. They also rose above any other sounds I was hearing at that time, by pure virtue of their unique qualities; qualities that at such an impressionable age are likely to cause a second listen. They sounded harmonious, catchy and oddly different. I didn’t really know what the female voices were singing about either, except it sounded vaguely glamorous and grown up, sometimes slightly forbidden. Only now, do I appreciate how adult ABBA are. They didn’t concern themselves much with the usual deviant topics of rock n’ roll, but rather the more mature themes of marriage, divorce and sometimes (let’s be frank) sex. However, by ‘sex’ I mean the grown up responsible kind, not usually the kind the likes of AC/DC may have been screaming enthusiastically about. Still, ABBA could do frisky. ABBA aren’t obviously the most sexual group out there, but listen to the Glam rock stomp of “Rock me”. They’re not singing about ordering pizza. Elsewhere, the group could actually be downright silly. Whereas “Summer Night City” positively reeks of beer and sex, the likes of “Bang-A-Boomerang” tread a bold lyrical path on the edge of the ludicrous. Continue reading

You can’t sing, you can’t dance, you look awful…you’ll go a long way! (Childhood memories of early ’80s pop).

18 Oct

The early 1980s were an odd time for pop music. There’s a common train of thought that it normally chugs its way through the station marked “Craptown”. But, I have to argue, it isn’t all true. Now, before I continue, I have to say nothing with regard to music winds me up more than ‘80s revisionists. What was embarrassing and without worth in 1981 is going to be pretty much the same thirty years later, perhaps more so. Then again, some things have a kind of period charm (as they often do), like Toyah’s haircuts and dress sense, for example. Alright, so you’re not with me on that one, but you get the idea.

Now, there was some very innovative stuff going on in the post-punk era, no doubt about that. However, that’s not to say a lot of commercial pop music in the early ‘80s was bloody awful; synthetic, irony free and badly written. Oddly these are some of the reasons why some of it is actually quite good, almost deserving respect due to its brash sense of the audacious. Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” couldn’t be anymore crap if it called itself “Kids in Milton Keynes”, but somehow it works. But some producers knew how to take cheese and add it to a really good omelette, so to speak. Giorgio Moroder springs to mind straight away. When he produced Blondie’s “Call me” he had a good group and a good song to work with, so perhaps he was usually just lucky. It’s also telling that there was something of a ‘60s revival in the early ‘80s, as well as this era being the aftermath of Punk. So what you got, quite often, was a bizarre combination of classic pop sensibility, to get clichéd, with often shockingly inappropriate and experimental electronics. Continue reading

Same Old New Musical Express? Happy 60th birthday to a pop cultural print legend.

26 Sep

The NME is 60 years old. Having recently experienced further dips in readership numbers and increasingly concentrating on ‘heritage’ acts as much as new talent (Lennon, Bowie, Blondie  The Ramones and The Sex Pistols have all featured on the cover in the last 12 months), the magazine has been struggling to remain relevant and vital and also to support the ‘New’ of the title.

As the new issue reveals, with a host of old faces talking about their experience of the magazine, it is a seminal British music paper (and has survived, where its old rival Melody Maker has not). With the glossy music magazines like Q also losing sales, it will be interesting how the NME continues to evolve. Written in 2003 for another web site, here are my views from those nine years ago on the magazine’s then state of affairs (in my humble opinion). Has much changed?. Continue reading