Monday, November 30, 2009

The Decade in Music #4: The Divine Comedy, Absent Friends

So we've had one break-up record. Apologies: here's another one. But the gap between Elliott Smith's Figure 8 and the Divine Comedy's Absent Friends can be measured in light years. If the first is a black mirror, the second weighs far less heavy on the heart.

Before we get to Absent Friends, let's look at Regeneration, the album that finally convinced this Divine sceptic.

In my imagination, I’m swimming against the tide; taking a stand, if I can mix the metaphor, against received opinion. Of course, this is largely fatuous bollocks. Mostly I'm just behind the times. Regeneration is a case in point.

Just about everyone I knew who'd had a good word for Neil Hannon's archrock project now seemed suddenly united in their disapprobation of Regeneration; shocked , hating the way it too eagerly threw off the fine smoking jacket of the preceding records and took up the Hoary Plaid of Rock. The wit and suavity had been ditched, or so they said, in favour of clod-hopping guitars and hairdos that could be politely called umkempt. Worse, they could only hear, in Nigel Godrich’s portentously atmospheric production, a cut-price Radiohead. And what were the songs even about? Previously, Neil Hannon would have sung about, I don't know, the National Express or hay fever or somesuch. Now he seemed to be singing about his feelings. This would never do—oh dear me no. So, Regeneration = Bad.

Which is where I shuffle in. Where long-time fans were choking on the stifling atmospheres, I was breathing in something delicious and quickly realising this was an album to which I could give a piece of my heart. I ended up listening to this album more in 2001 than I did any record except Elbow's Asleep in the Back.

Fast forward to late Australian summer of 2004. The end of a thing: I've just moved out of our water-side flat in Balmain to an apartment overlooking Sydney harbour (plus) that also houses an accountant (negative). A traumatic move by any measure: I'd moved to Australia for love, but that was over, and hear I was moving from west to east with just clothes, some books, and a few CDs for company. Including Absent Friends.

Absent Friends is Neil Hannon's masterpiece. It's a spring of melancholic positivity. Even when it flirts with outright sentimentality, I forgive it completely. If I recall, none of the songs address heartbreak per se. But the songs have a new directness and romantic sweep. "Come Home Billy Bird" brings back the wit, being a comic travelogue closing with a triumphant final line.

Listen to the best song, "Our Mutual Friend”. The music yearns and swells like a particularly swooning Hovis ad, even while the lyrical details stay touchingly ordinary:

On our friend’s settee
She told me that she really liked me
And I said, “Cool. The feeling’s mutual”.
We played old 45s
I said, “It’s like the soundtrack to our lives”
She said, “True, it’s not unusual”

This record was my constant companion during these hesitant weeks. Because what I remember most of this time alone in Potts Point is the feeling of possibility. Listening to this record and gazing out across a strange and beautiful city in late summer light, I was sure of only thing: it would all come good in time.

Buy Regeneration [UK/US]
Buy Absent Friends [UK/US]

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Decade in Music #3: Electroclash

It's 2002, and I find myself entirely seduced by the genre they're calling Electroclash — a genre that's going to vanish quicker than you can say "I too would like wear my sunglasses at night."

Now, I suppose it’s just about conceivable that we’ll be having a nu-electro movement in a year or so. But the accelerating atomisation of dance music suggests otherwise. And who'd want it back?

But back then, I fell hard. I mean, what wasn’t wasn't to like? Frosty mittel-European vocals from bored models? Check. Spangly covers of obscure 80s classics. Definitely. Super-trebly synths? Par for the course.

First came the love: That'd be Kittenz & Thee Glitz from Felix Da Housecat. The genre's great albums can be enumerated on the fingers of one silvery mitten and, in truth, I’m not sure that even Kittenz counts as great. But the first five or six songs are a blueprint that not even Felix could improve upon. “Harlot”, “Walk With Me” and “Silver Screen Shower Scene” are among the scene’s ur-songs, dirty synthy poseurs all of them, strutting and pouting and full of gakky disdain like a singing Helmut Newton photo.

The affair levels out: we go to a house-party, science postgraduate students, somewhere out East. I see fit to commandeer the stereo and replace whatever anaemic nonsense they’re playing with a hardcore electro-clash compilation, featuring the wondrous “Sunglasses at Night” from Tiga and Zyntherius, the disturbing “Rippin’ Kittin” (Jude Rogers has more here) from Miss Kitten and the Golden Boy and, um... not a great deal else that's worth remembering. Oddly, the popularity and good vibes I had thought to generate were not forthcoming. People can be so fickle right?

It’s all over: Fischerspooner, handed somewhere in the precinct of a million quid by Ministry of Sound, did two great things early on before buggering off into an amyl-scented fug. One was "Emerge", a bona-fide classic. The second was their where-you-there? gig at the Arches in London. Six songs, all mimed to a backing track. Costume changes for each song. Fake blood. Wind machines. Strobes. The sort of ambition that seemed to vanish in the middle years of the British musical decade.

Electroclash as a genre was eagerly retired, even as its DNA metastasised into the chart mainstream. They'd be better and harder dance music later in the decade. But for the time there, these songs were my irresitably sexy shiny baubles of fun.

Here's "Emerge":

Here's "Rippin Kittin":

And "Sunglasses at Night":

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Decade in Music #2: Samuel Barber and John Adams

2001. I'm the editor at the ill-fated Network Of The World in lovely Chiswick. It's basically a TV station producing daily music packages. Being a TV station, our open-plan office has massive plasma screen everywhere. Normally they're showing our own output: sports shows, tech, games, something called life which consisted of, um, whales. It's all a bit blurry.

So I'm working at our ridiculously high-powered PCs, fighting the temptation to get back on Napster, when I become aware that the office has emptied. Then I see that’s not quite right: everyone's gathered around the chief designer's dual monitors. Not being one of nature’s joiners and sort of just assuming they're all watching some viral video or other, I ignore the commotion.

My interest is only piqued when some sort of collective laugh or gasp issues from the group. OK, you've got me, I think. I get up and go take a look. I’m confused: I don’t immediately see what’s so interesting about a plume of smoke billowing from the World Trade Center.

And so it was that the afternoon unfolded, surreally, nightmarishly, numbly. Back at my desk, IMing friends and paranoically imagining highjacked planes crossing the Atlantic, we watch the iconic collapse on the huge plasma screens. That night, on the way to something or other, conversation is stilted: we’re numb. Only the debut of Blue Planet on the BBC is some kind of respite. The permanence of nature is a comforting message. But beyond horror, emotion was hard to come by.

It was, of all things, the Last Night of the Proms that helped unfreeze me and bought some measure of cathartic sadness. It so happened that Proms that year had been especially dedicated to American music. Leonard Slatkin, an American citizen himself, was conducting a hastily revised programme, dropping the jingoism for something more reflective. In tribute to the victims, there was a minute’s silence. Then played Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Slatkin’s face says it all.

Some years later in Sydney, I went to the Opera House to hear a performance of John Adams' On The Transmigration of Souls. Especially composed to commemorate the attacks, the piece featured speakers set around the auditorium playing verbal fragments from letters found in the wreckage. The effect was to give a human face to those otherwise incomprehensible weeks.

So, not pop music. Nevertheless, two of the most intense musical experiences of my decade.

Buy On The Transmigration of Souls
An interview with John Adams on the composition of the piece.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Decade in Music #1: Elliott Smith, Figure 8

Release date (UK): April 18th, 2000

Ah 2000, I hardly remember you. And for that, I’m mostly grateful.

Where 1999 had been a fabulous year of adventures and hi-jinks — London! — the first year of the new century, the early part at least, was mostly a bust.

At the tailend of 1999, I embroiled myself in what was in hindsight an disastrous relationship with someone who, as I later discovered, was rather more attracted to hard drugs than she was to me. Whoops! She left for Barcelona on May Day 2000: the day we voted in Ken Livingstone as the Mayor of London: naturally I was distraught.

Which is were Figure 8 came in. I’d first heard the lo-fi version of Elliott Smith in 1997, on a cassette from a friend over from Portland. As 2000 came around, I would have said my favourite album was XO, a masterpiece of guitar playing, waltz-time balladry and almost baroque pop harmonising. (I’m still no nearer to replicating the amazing beauty of “Independence Day” or “Tomorrow Tomorrow” on guitar today. Slow down!).

But Figure 8 seemed from the first to be over-stuffed, too rich, lacking the killer songs, too long. But, post-heartbreak, the album stood revealed as somehow written about, and sung to, me. How was such a thing possible? Listen: “Everything Reminds Me of Her”. Already the title. And then: “I never really had a problem because of leaving: But everything reminds me of her, this evening”.

Listening again today, all that emotional turmoil long since forgotten, it seems a trick of the light, or, at any rate, of the heart. It's not a depressing album by any measure. And knowing what we know about Elliott and his own misery, the record is ultimately hopeful. The middle eight of “In The Lost Of Found” has, to a great swell of strings: “day breaks every morning when he wakes and thinks of you”. And, right at the end, the direct devastation of “I Better Be Quiet Now”.

While the decade would never be so raw again, I can listen to this album, a record which made a profound connection at a dark time, and just about detect the aftershocks of those narcissistic pre 9/11 days.

Buy Figure 8 from Amazon

Sweet Adeline, the best Elliott Smith site.

My Decade in Music: The Best Songs and Albums of the 2000s

Well that's ten years done almost done with. Ten years of happy and heartbreak, of England and Australia, of dancing and chilling and hands-in-the-airing. Of listening to music on CD then MP3 player, then iPod. Of listening to albums entire to shuffling between playlists. From buying the odd record to obsessively scouring the MP3 blogs. From Napster to iTunes to Spotify. Can I shape the last ten years, after all only my third full decade of listening to music, into something with even the faintest accordance with my slippery memory. Let's give it a go.

Now, it’s so easy, isn’t it, it’s just so easy to scoff at those websites and magazines that have decided to publish their lists of the top albums of our splintering age, only to then have the likes of you and me point and laugh and tweet our outraged hilarity at the notion of, say, a Bob Dylan album anywhere near the top 50.

But what would make my list? Freed from having to meet demographic expectations and unrequired to satisfy a massive or medium or even discernable readership, I’ve compiled a list of the albums and tracks that have meant the most to me over the last ten years of my life, that have soundtracked my stately passage from an immature 25 to a marginally more rounded 35.

Some of the following selections may not even have been released during the decade but hey: I'm in charge, right? One thing that’ll be immediately obvious: despite my fond opinion of myself as a listener with an ear-thumb in every flavour of sonic pie (wait: is that disgusting? Or delicious?), the blunt fact is that my tastes aren’t particularly catholic. Hip hop, jazz, metal, you name it, they're all conspicuously under-represented. I can only plead honesty: if the selection strikes you as revealing a shockingly prejudiced quasi-bigotted, Phil Collinsy collection of records, well... you've got me.

One other thing: this list is more or less in chronological order. If life is just long enough to write this in the first place, it’s not quite long enough to put these records into order of preference. And anyway, would it really be fair to compare a record I've loved for almost ten years with something released only in 2009? Course not.

OK. Let’s get on with it. I'll try to publish a new piece every day. Let's start as the new century gets under way....

1: Elliott Smith, Figure 8
2: Samuel Barber and John Adams
3: Electroclash: Felix da Housecat, Miss Kitten and Fischerspooner
4: The Divine Comedy, Absent Friends
5: Dominik Eulberg, Kreucht and Fleucht
6: Royksopp, "What Else Is There? (Trentemøller remix)
7: Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker
8: Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man - Out Of Season
9: LCD Soundsystem, "Someone Great"
10: Portal's GLaDOS song
11: Elbow, "Grounds for Divorce"