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

9 Jul

beth_orton-trailer_park-front

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). #9: Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood: ‘Nancy and Lee’ (1968)

8 Jun

Nancy_lee_album_cover

I’m pretty sure I got introduced to this album when I borrowed a batch of a mate’s Nancy Sinatra albums around 1995. Well, I say my mate’s albums, but they were really his mum’s, who’d actually bought them in the ‘60s. I rated Nancy, if only for her collaboration with the great John Barry on the You Only Live Twice soundtrack. It was the side of ‘60s music that I adored as much as the twangy guitars and hippy antics. Full wall of sound orchestras and emotive soundscapes, but given a slightly surreal and psychedelic twist; it was easy listening, I suppose, but not quite what Andy Williams was doing. Additionally, Lee Hazlewood looked like my Dad, which makes Hazlewood’s appearance in numerous video clips all the more surreal and amusing to me.

Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra was an odd combination, but that was the point and why it worked so well. More recently Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan have shown us a similar dynamic over three albums (as did Nancy and Lee), but Nancy and Lee was the first and here it feels like a series of fresh and unique takes on the duet. Hazlewood was the gravel voiced, world weary cowboy character and Nancy was the sweet but sassy girl next door, and the contrast brought the songs alive in a slightly subversive way that just wouldn’t be there if they were traditionally matched up. The story goes that Frank Sinatra asked Hazlewood to rescue his daughter’s recording career, and pen and produce her some certain hits. With this being Frank Sinatra, perhaps he made Hazlewood an offer he couldn’t refuse; either way, Hazlewood rose to the challenge and ‘Boots’ was a universal number one, quickly followed by the likes of ‘How does that grab you darlin’?’ and the start of a winning collaboration. That Lee Hazlewood would eventually come from behind the mixing desk isn’t as inevitable as you might think, as the man had a nice career of his own, but I’m so glad he did. Lee and Nancy sound like they’re having so much fun here, that when it’s not being strange and surreal, it’s all out goofy and slightly ridiculous, with Nancy playing up to the stupid blonde stereotype (which at no point truly convinces me) and Lee ramping up his sardonic drifter act.

The album isn’t a faultless product though, and I can admit that, no matter how much I love it. Their version of “You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling’ verges on the cringe worthy, and the fact that it opens the album does not bode well. But things improve and four tracks in we get the first Hazlewood original: ‘Summer Wine’. ‘Summer Wine’ is captivating, an oddly dangerous sounding and utterly sublime ballad. Once they stop goofing around these two metaphorically rip my heart out and throw it a few thousand feet in the air. It’s a brilliant tune, and it’s not the best here either. The two delights on side two of the original vinyl (‘Some Velvet Morning’ and ‘Ladybird’) are often cited as examples of psych-pop or dream-pop or something of that nature. Basically, they’re both slightly weird, by the standards of pop music in 1968, and probably now as well, and that edge (along with their epic wall-of-sound arrangements) makes them two essential listens. The ‘psych’ tag is misleading, as Nancy and Lee isn’t a psychedelic album as such, but then again, it is an album with psychedelic leanings. It’s just a few other things as well; it’s a strange little package if the truth be told, and that’s why I like it so much. Its easy listening made a bit hard. Like Nancy’s solo albums of the time, the orchestra and arrangements were by Billy Strange, who managed to elevate the music to a special, occasionally mystical, aural place of emotive class, somewhere between Phil Spector and a James Bond soundtrack. This is the more refined side of ‘60s pop, but with enough far out posturing to make you wonder what Lee had been putting in Nancy’s tea (and let’s be honest, it was probably that way round).

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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). #3: Portishead: “Dummy” (1994)

1 Apr

portishead-dummy

Portishead: Dummy (Go! Beat, 1994)

Listening to Portishead’s Dummy over 20 years after its first release, and I suppose the main dichotomy between it and the great times its sound tracked is how sad it is. Beth Gibbons’ vocals are often captivating but sorrowful and are accompanied by sparse sound-scapes that are often as bleak as the lyrics and vocals. I first heard Dummy in its entirety in early 1995 and it became one of my pivotal most played albums of that year. It had little in common with the late period grunge or Brit-Pop that was vying for my attention; this was a classy offering that put me more in mind of John Barry’s James Bond soundtracks than a night at The Good Mixer.

But Dummy wasn’t about nostalgia or (God forbid) kitsch. There is an obvious Barry influence here, and that is all to the good as Barry’s compositions were often sublime evocative pieces that were as tender as they were brassily exciting (there is also a canny sample from fellow ‘60s spy thriller composer Lalo Shiffrin). But there that older influence is filtered through the ear of other influences such as the Hip Hop which was front man Geoff Barrow’s big interest. The influence of Hip-Hop, Dub and Soul is quite evidently there, and Gibbons’ vocals are in the emotive tradition of many Blues and Jazz greats. When Gibbons sings “just let me be a woman”, on ‘Glory Box’, she evokes the spirit of Billie Holliday. It’s an understated but powerful vocal.  Surrounded by mysterious spy-fi guitars and looped drum beats, Dummy could end up sounding impersonal, but Gibbons was their trump card in that respect; she makes it all so raw and emotional it almost goes too far the other way. Portishead were often classed as ‘Trip Hop’, and indeed helped popularise the genre, but they were so much like a lot of other styles, that to categorise them is more difficult than surrendering to their sound and just joyfully listening.

In many ways the album makes more sense to my older ears, as there weren’t as many ‘Sour Times’ in my twenties. But Dummy never sounds like a truly bitter record; it skirts away from the truly bleak by virtue of a sort of tender romanticism. There’s even a touch of the Gothic, with a suggestion of triumphantly returning from heartbreak. Dummy sounds like the soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist (music videos and one short film aside), but surely the point is that all good albums play a part in sound-tracking our own lives, and Dummy has served me well in that respect. On listening to it again, after quite a long time, I’m reminded why I embraced its melancholy but yearning beauty in the first place.

portishead

Also recommended:

Portishead (Go!, 1997)

Third (Island, 2008)

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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Surviving Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia!

26 Oct
Jane Weaver

Jane Weaver at Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia.

A busy month away from this blog, and a few things to tell, but I’ll start with a follow up to the last post. Yes, just incase you were in any doubt, I survived the Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia. I’m pretty sure I can’t remember half of it and not because I was drunk, or otherwise. It all blended into one glorious noise and social whirl, although I do vividly remember live sets from JC Satan and Jane Weaver, who were exceptionally good. So, for all round good times and a real feeling of musical camaraderie, I heartily recommend checking out next year’s event (obviously if psychedelic music is your thing). Taking place in the city’s off beat Camp and Furnace district (think renovated warehouses), it was one of the best urban festivals I’ve been to! As well as the various stages, they even have numerous food stalls in operation, an upstairs dance floor and a vinyl shop (courtesy of Manchester’s Piccadilly Records).

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Anyway, enough from me, I clearly haven’t retained enough information! Here is some dynamic footage instead:

Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia.

25 Sep

One of the discouraging aspects of teaching English (of which there are many positives) is that when I get home of a night, writing on my blog isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. Getting my tea is the first thing that springs to mind. Hopefully I will have the energy to write more very soon! In the meantime, here’s a plug for an event I’m attending tonight and tomorrow. Four of us have tickets and I believe some are still available. Liverpool’s annual psychedelic festival is playing host to a roll call of far out musical talent, with acts playing live at various locations. Plus, yes, I’m in Liverpool again! I just can’t keep away. I’m particularly keen to see the North-West’s very own Jane Weaver, whose The Silver Globe album has become a personal favourite. Also French outfit JC Satan promise sounds of a more abrasive but no less captivating nature. But, what am I saying…there are so many acts on offer, it’d be foolish to pick any out (which I just have).

So if psychedelic music is your thing, get down there this weekend. I’ve heard very good things about this festival, and will be sure to feed back to you on my experience very shortly.

http://www.liverpoolpsychfest.com/

Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia is on from Friday 25th to Saturday 26th September, at the Camp and Furnace, Blade Factory and District venues.